Of all the Christmas stories I have read about while doing historical research, one of the most endearing involves “newsboys,” or “newsies.” As the electronic media gains greater inroads into everyday life, it becomes increasingly difficult to relate how important “newsies” once were to the daily dissemination of information.
The word “newsboy” is an anachronism, replaced first by “paperboy” and more recently by the gender neutral term “paper carrier.” Today, paper carriers actually come in all ages and both genders, but there was a time when lads were the main distributors of the dailies.
For decades, newsboys were the ubiquitous youngsters hawking newspapers at street corners. In old movies, newsboys are portrayed shouting out, “Extra! Extra!” followed by the pronouncement of a catchy headline.
Today, such a scene would seem odd, but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it would have been strange not to hear their loud pleas to, “Read all about it.”
Instead of newsboys, coin-operated newspaper vending machines are now found at busy street corners. Headlines are no longer shouted out, but prominently displayed to attract the attention of passers-by.
The best first-hand written account of a newsboy’s life in Winnipeg is by Joseph Wilder, a Jewish immigrant who came to Winnipeg with his family from Romania in 1904. His 1978 book, Read All About It: Reminiscences of an Immigrant Newsboy, tells about his time as one of the children who shouted headlines on the city’s street corners.
“The only way to get news ‘hot off the press’ was to buy a paper from a newsboy,” he wrote.
Wilder wrote that most of Winnipeg’s newsboys were newly-arrived immigrant children and took the job because it was the first — often the only — occupation available. In fact, a newsboy’s earnings would have been very important to these immigrant families as they tried to adapt to living in the New World.
The fact that immigrants were prominent as newsboys is stressed in The Foreigner, by Winnipegger Rev. Dr. Charles William Gordon, who was a very popular fiction writer under the penname Ralph Connor. A main character in the book is Kalman, a Galician (Ukrainian) immigrant newsboy in Winnipeg.
“His (Kalman’s) fingers were numb handling the coins received from the sale of his papers, but the boy cared nothing for that,” wrote Connor. “He had a good afternoon and evening; for with Winnipeg men and the colder the night the warmer their hearts ... harvest days for the hardy newsboys crying their wares on the street.”
“All in all, the life of a newsboy in the early days was a good one,” Wilder wrote. “The work was interesting, the pay pretty fair if you hustled. And the bustling streets of a boom town was just about the most fascinating place where a young boy could be.”
Most of the newsies came from the city’s North End, also known by the names New Jerusalem, Foreign Quarter or CPR Town, where poverty was an everyday reality.
The newsboys’ importance to Winnipeg publishers was probably best exemplified by a special dinner on Christmas Day 1896, co-hosted by the Daily Nor’Wester and Winnipeg Tribune. “The large assemblage of ladies and gentlemen who witnessed the unique festival at the Clarendon yesterday afternoon, saw nothing but rapt enjoyment and uniform harmony at the proceedings,” according to the Nor’Wester.
The newspaper reported more than half of the 100 newsboys invited attended. Presumably, the other half were on the streets hawking newspapers, as publication didn’t stop for Christmas Day, nor for any day of the holidays.
In the process of doing justice to their “bill of fare,” the newsies were “disconcerted” by the many people who had come to gape, “but the second course found them blissfully unconscious of their surroundings. The ecstatic manner in which they ‘fell to’ gave the interested outsiders more genuine diversion than they had known for a long time.”
While the boys ate, they were serenaded by (Samuel Lee) Barrowclough’s orchestra.
“Some of the lads who had made their first acquaintance with Mocque (mock) Bisque, Queen Olives, champagne sauce, Lobster Mayonnaise, etc. were enchanted with the culinary preparations undreamt of ... One youngster was so infatuated with the plum pudding and Charlotte Russe that he made strenuous efforts to secret a portion in his pockets. He succeeded better with the almonds, raisins, oranges, and nobody attempted to stop him. The nimble waitresses were very attentive to the boys, and anybody who went away unsatisfied had only himself to blame.”
Who can blame the youngster. The normal fare at a Ukrainian, Jewish and Polish supper table would have been borscht, holubtsis, gefilte fish, matzo balls or perogies — food from the Old Country.
“It was shortly after two o’clock when the little guests leaned back in their chairs, and regarded each other with satisfied glances ... They had run the whole gamut of one of Mr. Bunnell’s finest menus, and they rested from their labors ... John Williams, a very diminutive newsboy arose ... He said that every newsboy in the city had cause to be grateful to Mr. Bell and the Nor’Wester for this magnificent Christmas gift ... The dinner was splendid — far better than they had expected. John did not electrify his hearers, but when he sat down with the remark that the Nor’wester was the only newspaper on earth, the banquet hall resounded with deafening hand-clapping and cheers.”
Mayor-elect William McCreary “reminded them that the vocation of newsboy was just as important as that of the highest dignitaries in the land. Some of the greatest men of to-day had been newsboys at one time.”
McCreary said he knew of one wealthy Winnipeg merchant (not named) who had sold papers on a city street corner. He told the boys to continue their education and, “At the same time learn to fight the battle of life honestly and manfully. He advised them not to acquire bad habits, and to be honorable in their dealings with one another.”
Next to speak was Robert Richardson of the Tribune, who said he regretted not having a chance to be a newsboy because he grew up on a farm. “He thought the newsboy made a good start in life; he would have liked to have been one himself.”
His belief was that some of the newsboys he was addressing would some day become publishers themselves, “and be giving banquets to newsboys yet unborn.”
The last strains of orchestra strings signalled the end of the banquet, “and the ... Christmas banquet to the newsboys had come to a very successful end.”