A newsboys’ Christmas in 1896 — called “a howling success in every way”

by Bruce Cherney

In today’s world, 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 time when lads were the main distributors of the dailies.

For decades, newsboys, also then commonly referred to as “newsies,” were the ubiquitous youth 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 Rumania 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. 

This was an era when even radios were in the future.

“The hoot and holler of the newsboy shouting ‘EXTRA’ always created a stir. People would come running towards us. We were the centre of attention, proudly conveying the latest news to a waiting world. It made us feel very important.”

Wilder wrote that most of Winnipeg’s newsboys were immigrant children newly arrived and took the job because it was the first thing 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 

Foreign, by Ralph Connor, a popular fiction writer of the time. A main character in the book is Kalman, a Galician (Ukrainian) immigrant newsboy. On his travels along the streets of Winnipeg, Connor would have become quite familiar with newsboys, seeing them on street corners any hour of the day.

“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, and these fierce February days were 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.”

Winnipeg was indeed a boom town. In 1896, the population was 31,649. With news of its prospects of becoming the “Chicago of the North,” Winnipeg’s population more than doubled from 42,340 people in 1901 to 90,153 in 1906. By 1911, there were 136,055 people residing in the city.

But, despite Wilder’s fond reminiscences, a newsboy didn’t always experience the good life. After all, 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 and its residents were separated by the CPR railway  tracks from the rest of the city.

Describing the living conditions of “New Jerusalem,” a group of ladies from the Winnipeg Ministerial reported that, “Forty-five families inhabited a very small space, living in a manner that was to say the least disgraceful.”

A city health inspector in 1913 noted that one 10-room North End house was occupied by five families. “Three  of the families had only one room each ... There was one water closet, one sink, a bath, and a wash basin.”

The Daily Nor-Wester, shared the common Anglo-Saxon contempt for the very immigrants who made up a significant portion of its newsboys. For example, on December 23, 1896, the newspaper said: “The southern Slavs are probably the least promising of all the material that could be selected for nation building.”   

In another article, it said, the “... dumping of these filthy, penniless and ignorant foreigners into progressive and intelligent communities is a serious hardship to these communities ... It cannot be too emphatically repeated that the people of Manitoba want no such settlers as these Galicians.”

What is not commonly known today is that the North End, while also an enclave of Jewish, Polish, Ukrainian and Scandanavian immigrants, had a significant population of immigrants from the British Isles. They were the working-class majority of the area, equally poor and living in the same deplorable conditions as North Enders from other parts of the world.

The newsboys’ importance to Winnipeg publishers was probably best exemplified by a special event on Christmas Day 1896. On that day, the Winnipeg Daily Nor’Wester and Winnipeg Daily Tribune co-hosted a Christmas dinner dedicated to their newsboys — despite the contempt shown for the background of many of them as contained in the pages of the Daily Nor’Wester just two days before. 

The Daily Nor’Wester considered the event so significant that it devoted extensive coverage to the Happy Newsboys, as its main headline suggested. 

The Nor’Wester Dinner was a Howling Success in Every Way, added a subhead.

In the third pronouncement of the day’s events, the Nor’Wester alluded to the Manitoba Free Press playing Scrooge, saying the newsboys “didn’t do a thing but laugh and grow fat. Of course, the Nor’Wester turned the tables on their competition by commenting about the “despotism” of the Free Press.

“Cheers for the Nor’Wester and Tribune, But the F.P. Ignored — Speeches etc.,” proclaimed the newspaper.

“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.”

The Clarendon, Portage and Donald, at the time was a prestigious hotel, but an eyesore by 1920 when it was demolished to make way for a new Clarendon. It was later converted into the Portage Village Inn, but the site and building now stands vacant after A&B Sound recently left).

Among the guests mentioned were Nor’Wester publisher Thomas A. Bell, a founder of the Tribune Robert Lorne Bell, Mayor-elect William McCreary, Mayor Thomas Gilroy,  Rev. Charles Pitblado, and L.A. Hamilton.

The account in the Nor’Wester is in the typical flowery language of the time, and the expressions used would make today’s politically correct cringe. 

When describing those serving the newsies, the writer said “the large corps of busy waitresses seemed to have made their toilettes with a view to captivate their youthful guests. And they did.”

The writer said more than half of the 100 newsboys invited attended. Presumably, the other half were on the streets hawking the newspapers since publication didn’t stop for Christmas Day, nor for any day of the holidays. Only those newsboys who were able to hawk their papers by noon or took the day off would have been able to attend.

The Daily Nor’Wester said the newsboys had been preparing for the event for weeks, keeping themselves on “short rations” so they could “‘do justice’ to the bill of fare.”

In the process of doing justice to their “bill of fare,” the newsies were apparently “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, who continued to perform well into the afternoon. Barrowclough was the director of the Winnipeg Citizen Band and ran a music store in Winnipeg, but later moved to Detroit where he died in 1944.

“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 secrete 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.”

And, who can blame the youngster, who may have been from one of the North End’s immigrant families. The normal fare at a Ukrainians’, Jew’s and Pole’s supper table would have been borscht, holubtsis, gefilte fish, matzo balls or perogies, food they were familiar with 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.”

It was at this time that the speeches began.

“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.”

John Sturgeon, another newsboy, said to be the biggest at the banquet, moved a “hearty vote of thanks for the Nor’Wester for the sumptuous feast just ended ... The speaker stated that he would remember the Christmas dinner of 1896 at the Clarendon if he lived to be hundred.”

Mayor-elect McCreary was the next to rise, and said it had given him great pleasure to have been present. “He reminded them (the newsboys) 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 know 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 Richardson, 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 Nor’Wester's Christmas banquet to the newsboys had come to a very successful end.”

Whether this banquet was an annual event cannot be determined from other Christmas issues of the Daily Nor’Wester. The December 25, 1896 issue has the only reported account of a newsboys’ Christmas banquet.

The Daily Nor’Wester only had a brief history in Winnipeg. It started on February 3, 1894, and ended in June 1898. But, while it lasted, it was counted among the city’s top newspapers.

Because of its early history of numerous dailies ceasing publication — 26 general interest daily newspapers came and went — Winnipeg became known in North America as the “Graveyard of Daily Newspapers.”

The Tribune survived those early days but it also joined the others in the graveyard of daily newspapers, closing down in 1980. Of all the dailies from that era, only the Free Press has survived to this day. 

When Winnipeg’s other dailies were relegated to the graveyard, so were the newsboys who in a bygone era had added so much to the vitality and bustle of Winnipeg’s streets.