By Kat Pirnie
"The city thrives on child labor. A lot of people make money that way. They're terrified that the newsies strike will spread." Newsies, directed by Kenny Ortega, is a film about the New York newsboys strike of 1899. Although fictionalized, it is a good account of what life was like for these boys. The strike lasted two weeks and became a major advance in the children's crusade for better pay and safety.
The movie Newsies is an enjoyable musical experience. The plot centers around Jack "Cowboy" Kelly played by Christian Bale who is a homeless, but well-known newspaper boy or "Newsie." His father is in prison and his mother deceased; he longs to escape the streets of New York and go to Santa Fe. Meanwhile David Jacobs (David Moscow) leaves school and becomes a newsie along with his younger brother, Les because his father is hurt on the job and can no longer work. Jack takes David under his wing and teaches him the ways of the newsies. David introduces Jack to his family and Jack falls in love with David's sister, Sarah. Meanwhile, the powerful newspaper owner, Joseph Pulitzer (Robert Duvall) ponders how to make more money and decides that the answer is to charge the newsies 1/10 of a cent more per newspaper. In response the newsies go on strike with Jack and David as their leaders. A lone newspaper reporter, Bryan Denton, (Bill Pullman) takes their side. Meanwhile Synder, the warden of a juvenile detention facility is after Jack because he has escaped from the center. After a big strike rally Jack is captured and brought before Pulitzer who offers him a bribe to work for him. Angry, Denton leaves the cause to accept another newspaper position. Jack accepts the bribe but comes back to the newsies' side soon after. Bryan, Jack, David and Sarah print their own newspaper about child labor. The paper states that the real reason the strike is feared is because it gives children power. The newsies distribute the paper to all the working children around the city and ask them to support the newsies in a big rally. The working juveniles come out in mass and protest outside Pulitzer's office. Overwhelmed by the response, Pulitzer rolls the price back. Even Teddy Roosevelt, played by David James Alexander, comes at Denton's request and cleans up the corrupt juvenile detention center. Jack leaves for Santa Fe but decides against it and comes back saying that the newsies are his family.
The newspaper boys were the main way that people got their papers in the mid nineteenth to the early twentieth century in the United States. They tended to be the poorest group in society, often homeless and sleeping on the streets. They weren't very well liked by the general public. In 1875 a writer wrote that "there are 10,000 children living on the streets of New York… The newsboys constitute an important division of this army of homeless children. You see them everywhere… They rend the air and deafen you with their shrill cries. They surround you on the sidewalk and almost force you to buy their papers. They are ragged and dirty. Some have no coats, no shoes, and no hat." The newsies were employees of the publishers and not the newspapers. They would buy the papers from publishers and sell them, acting as independent agents. They couldn't sell back unsold papers and, depending on the headline, could make little to no money a day. The typical earning was about thirty cents per day.
In 1898 publishers raised the cost of papers to newsboys from 50 cents to 60 cents per one hundred papers. This was because the Spanish-American War increased newspaper sales. The price increase was balanced by the increase of papers that the newsies were selling so at first the increased price didn't really affect the newsboys. But after the war, when paper sales decreased, most papers brought the price back down to 50 cents. The exceptions were Joseph Pulitzer's paper, The World, and William Randolph Hearst's paper, The Journal.
The strike began in July 1899 when a large number of newsboys refused to distribute The World and The Journal. It lasted two weeks. The newsies protested on the Brooklyn Bridge and stopped traffic and the news distributers. They also demonstrated by crowding the paper carts and threatening the cart drivers. They threw rocks at or beat up those who did hawk the banned newspapers. Other newspapers covered the newsies' strike which brought public support to their cause. The strike ended when, after the papers had lost a lot of money, Hearst and Pulitzer reached a compromise with the newsies. Although they would keep the price of a bundle at 60 cents, publishers would buy back any unsold papers. The newsboys accepted the compromise and disbanded their union.
A fair number of real historical people are featured in the movie. Joseph Pulitzer was characterized as a mean, heartless, power hungry, proud man. He was a self made man who came from a poor immigrant family. Contrary to his depiction, his newspaper was often a champion for the common man, and he himself often sided with unions during strikes. He pledged The World to "expose all fraud and sham, fight all public evils and abuses" and to "battle for the people with earnest sincerity."
A minor character in the film, Kid Blink, was actually one of the main leaders of the strike. Called Kid Blink because he wore an eye patch, he is characterized as a lusty, charismatic leader but generally seems a flat character in the movie. Not much is known about the real Kid Blink although he did wear a patch and spoke with a thick Brooklyn accent. David Simons was the President of the Newsboys Union. In the film he is shown to be intelligent and gentle. He didn't want the newsies to be violent. In real life he most likely encouraged violent behavior. There are other historical characters whose names at least were used in the film: the newsies Racetrack Higgins, Boots, and Spot Connelly are a few.
Some fictional characters were added to the film. Jack was a good example of a typical newsboy: tough, homeless, and having a knack for stretching the truth to sell papers. David's father showed the reality of the working class plight. His arm was broken on the job and he was fired because the factory could no longer use him. With no union to protect him, his children must take care of the family.
Newsies showed what everyday life was like during that time period. The first song, "Carrying the Banner" describes the life of the newsie. It shows them getting up in the morning, bathing in a bucket and using a water pump at the Newsie lodging house. Nuns sometimes gave them bread and coffee in the morning. Sarah is shown hanging up clothes on a clothes line outside while women's work appears hard and was. The song "Once and for all" describes child labor: "This is for kids shinin' shoes in the street With no shoes on their feet everyday This is for guys sweatin' blood in the shops While the bosses and cops look away" (Newsies) The dress of the period was also accurate. The newsies wore suspenders, newsie caps, and three quarter length pants.
The film was not well received. The critics said the musical numbers were sloppy and the Brooklyn accents were "cheesy". Despite this the film Newsies has become a cult classic especially among younger viewers. There are many fan web sites and all the enthusiasm, support and word of mouth soon led to production of a DVD. The film is not perfect but it is very interesting and makes the audience want to learn more. Although it is no doubt "Disney-fied", it maintains the historical background.
The Newsboys' strike of 1899 proved a big step in child labor rights. It inspired strikes such as the Butte, Montana Newsboys' Strike of 1914 and a 1920's strike in Kentucky. Most importantly the strikes proved that children had power. They could organize and make things happen for themselves. The movie is a good historical piece particularly for younger viewers. It makes history come alive and is entertaining and fun. Although there are some historical inaccuracies, it conveys the correct theme and flavor of the era. Other recommended books for further reading are We Were There Too: Young People in U.S. History by P. Hoose, and The Brooklyn Bridge: A Cultural History by R. Haw.