Were Connecticut newsgirls dangerously overstimulated on the city streets in 1917? Or were they better off than other working-class children because they earned tuition from their newspaper sales?
That was the heart of the debate in the Connecticut Legislature during the winter/spring session of 1917 when the newsgirls’ fate was on the table.
A bill was filed that said, “No girl under the age of 16 years shall be allowed to sell or offer for sale, or distribute, any newspaper, or other article of merchandise, on the public streets, or in any place, in any city, town, or village, hamlet, or any place with the boundary lines of the state.”
A substitute bill specified the prohibition would only apply to locations with a population greater than 10,000.
Concern About Newsgirls
Children involved in street trading had become a concern for the National Child Labor Committee. Photographer Lewis Hine worked for the NCLC, recording images of child laborers in gritty industrial settings or dangerous conditions.
In a caption to the 1909 photo above, Hine wrote, “Newsgirls waiting for papers. Largest girl, Alice Goldman has been selling for 4 years. Newsdealer says she uses viler language than the newsboys do. Besie Goldman and Bessie Brownstein are 9 years old and have been selling about one year. All sell until 7:00 or 7:30 P.M. daily. Hartford, Connecticut.”
Girls were seen as especially vulnerable to the immorality and dangers of the early 20th-century city. Unlike the mines and mills, which caused childhood physical deformity and a lack of mental stimulation, the streets were seen a place of dangerous overstimulation.
At the same time, the ‘newsies’ were a vital part of the distribution of the late afternoon and evening newspapers that new communications and printing technology allowed after 1900. The newspaper industry fought to keep the youth armies on the streets. And some reformers saw the NCLC advocacy of restrictions on street trading as part of a misplaced middle-class moral panic that could make it difficult for working-class kids to get ahead.
The Debate Plays Out
Christine J. Haas of the Hartford Council of Jewish Women was said to strongly favor imposing a fine of $20 on girls ‘for each offense of selling newspapers on the street,’ according to the Feb. 28, 1917 Bridgeport Farmer, “Opposition to Bill to Stop Newsgirls Selling in the Street.”
Mary C. Wells of Wethersfield agreed with the restriction because of the dangers of young girls following buyers into the saloons.
Others, like Mary Hall – suffragist, attorney and Good Will Boys Club superintendent — strenuously opposed the bill. Hall was reported to have pleaded for the newsgirls as early as 1909. “She remembered the first newsgirl to appear on the streets of Hartford, who was her friend, and this girl has grown up to be fine woman. She never knew of a newsgirl going astray in the moral sense of the word,” the Bridgeport Farmer reported on April 2, 1909.
The editor of the Hartford Times, W. O. Burr, argued at that same time that regulation should be left up to the individual towns. The attorney Joseph L. Barbour thought it hypocritical that there was no law prohibiting boys and girls from being on the street, but only a law proposed to prohibit them from being “busy on the street.” Others testified that a number of young women attending adult education classes earned their tuition as newsgirls.
Historian David Nasaw tried to see the newsgirls’ world through a working-class lens. He noted the ‘newsies’ had demonstrated remarkable powers of self-organization and self- protection, participating in work stoppages to improve their relationship with the newspaper companies.
In 1913, for example, a ‘Condensed Telegram’ in the November 14 Norwich Bulletin reported that Boston newsgirls were threatening a strike.
The Bill Fails
The 1917 Connecticut bill ultimately failed. We cannot know from the newspaper accounts exactly what swayed the Legislature. Certainly there were committed reform organizations on both sides of the issue.
It cannot be ignored that the Burr family of Hartford Times fame were founders and supporters of the Good Will Club. They may have had made known their desire to keep the newsgirls selling their paper. Yet, there is no documentation that leads this researcher to doubt the sincerity of those, like Club director Mary Hall, who saw children of the street trade as having it better than other working children.
The general public saw the newsgirls as potentially part of a romantic rags-to-riches story that the new cities of the early 20th century seemed to offer.
In January of 1917, they were flocking to the Empire theater to see the screen star Mary Doro in Lost and Won. In the film, a little newsgirl is made the ward of a powerful stockbroker, becomes a newspaper reporter for the newspaper she once hawked and eventually rescues her savior from charges of theft (Bridgeport Farmer, Jan. 25, 1917, p. 13).
The historic Connecticut newspapers, now part of the Library of Congress newspaper database Chronicling America, should be searched by anyone interested in filling in the story of children and labor in the state.
The author of this story, Christine Gauvreau, is Project Coordinator, CT Digital Newspaper Project, an initiative of the CT State Library.
Images: Mary Hall, By Photographer unknown – Richmond Memorial Library, PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38313036.
Baldwin, Peter C. “Nocturnal Habits and Dark Wisdom: The American Response to Children in the Streets at Night, 1880-1930,” Journal of Social History, Vol. 35, No. 3 (Spring 2002), p. 593-611. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3790692
DiGirolamo, Vincent Richard. “Crying the News: Children, Street Work, and the American Press, 1830s-1920s.” Diss, Princeton University, 1997.
“Empire,” Bridgeport Farmer, Jan. 25, 1917, p. 13, col. 1.
Good Will Club (Hartford, Conn.). Historical Sketch of the Good Will Club: Annual Reports, 1910 and 1923. State Library catalog record: http://www.consuls.org:80/record=b2717555~S1
“Mary Hall,” The Virtual Hall, Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame. http://cwhf.org/inductees/politics-government-law/mary-hall#.WLG-2fJQYaI.
Nasaw, David. Children of the City: At Work and at Play. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
“Opposition to Bill to Stop Newsgirls Selling in Street,” Bridgeport Farmer, Feb. 23, 1917, p. 4, col. 3.
“Pleas for Newsgirls,” Bridgeport Farmer, April 2, 1909, p. 11, col. 3.
Trattner, Walter I. Crusade for the Children: A History of the National Child Labor Committee and Child Labor Reform in America. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1970. State Library catalogue record: http://www.consuls.org:80/record=b1786988~S1.
This story updated in 2022.
[…] Newsies, telegraph messengers and young mill workers were exposed to vice and abused by their employers, their customers and even their parents. […]
[…] Others, however, pointed out the children’s families, mostly poor immigrants, needed the pennies they earned to survive. Some young girls, for example, paid for school tuition with their earnings as newsies. […]
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