Carrying the Banner: Newsies and Its Significance

The Gilded Age in America was a time rife with internal corruption. Child labor, poor housing conditions and corrupt politicians ran rampant. In such an industrialized, corrupted place, it was common for people to advocate change, but never children. When the newsboys came together and went on strike for fair pay in 1899, it was a surprise for many.

Friens and feller workers. Dis is a time which tries de hearts of men. Dis is de time when we’se got to stick together like glue…. We know wot we wants and we’ll git it even if we is blind.–Kid Blink, a newsboy, speaking to 2,000 strikers

The Disney movie-musical Newsies opened in movie theaters on April 10, 1992 and grossed over $2 million in the United States. The movie is roughly based on the newsboys’ strike of 1899. While it wasn’t the most successful Disney movie, it shed light on many of the problems surrounding newspapers at the time. The movie tells the story of Jack “Cowboy” Kelly, a teenager working as a newsboy and acting as ringleader for the younger newsboys he works with. The boys band together and demand fair treatment and pay after greedy Pulitzer and Hearst raise their newspaper prices.

The Gilded Age was a time full of immigration Italians, Irish, German, and various other European and Asian immigrants. There were newspapers in different languages for different ethnic groups and cultures. With such a large population, many workers were needed to distribute large amounts of papers. Many of these workers were children. These children were newsboys , or “newsies.” Their job was to stand on streets and their corners and shot the headlines of that day’s paper, hoping that people would buy the newspaper. These children were street urchins, homeless children who sought to make a living for themselves. These children were seen sleeping beneath the stairs of newspapers’ offices, huddling together to keep each other warm at night. They lived dirty, impoverished lives but worked to make ends meet.

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.–James B. McCabe, Jr. 


Newsies at work

The newsboys’ strike of 1899 stemmed in part from Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, the owners of competing newspapers The New York Evening World and The New York Evening Journal, boosted the prices of their papers to assist in funding the Spanish-American War in 1898. Children of immigrants (who most likely lived in cramped tenement housing) and other poor families could help contribute to their family’s income by becoming newsboys who told the day’s headlines to passersby, hoping that they would buy a paper. Children spent their own money on buying papers, and they money that they earned would go, in part, to the newspaper that they worked for. When the paper’s prices were not lowered after the newspapers’ support of the war, many newsboys went on strike, held meetings, and marched until their demands of lower prices were met. Eventually, Pulitzer and Hearst’s papers were doing so poorly that they decided to keep the prices up but buy back newspapers that were not sold. This was satisfactory enough to let work continue as normal.

WRH pulitzer

William Randolph Hearst (left) and Joseph Pulitzer (right)

The movie, however, took a few liberties in painting the newsboys strike of 1899. The prices of newspapers in the movie were raised primarily because the two newspaper owners were greedy, not because of the raging Spanish-American war. The compromise that happened in real life between the newsboys and Pulitzer is simplified down to the greedy Pulitzer realizing how wrong he was in taking advantage of the newsboys and stops raising the price altogether. Similarly, scabs, or newsboys who still sold papers during the strike, were the primary targets of fights and brawls. The movie made police officers out to be the newsies’ true victims.  Another group primarily left out of the fights in 1899 were the newsgirls. Girls were left alone because, according to one boy, “we ain’t fighting women.”The movie does take a few liberties in chaning how the strike went for the sake of plot and simplicity, but in the end it does encapsulate the general idea (even if it does throw in excess singing and dancing). The movie captures the idea of boys rising up to demand fair pay, even if some artistic liberties were taken in the process.

The newsies sing “If I hate the headline, I’ll make up a headline” in the song “Carrying the Banner.” Newsies would exaggerate a boring headline in the movie to sell more papers. The headline, sometimes, was changed and exaggerated by the papers themselves. Yellow journalism, a term coined in the 1890s, described Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst’s habit of exaggerating headlines to boost paper sales. The two papers were constantly in competition, so this exaggeration was a way of allowing one to triumph over the other. Sensationalizing headlines leads to big problems in the ethical dispersal of information. It is unethical today to exaggerate the truth to the extreme extent that Pulitzer and Hearst did in their papers. This practice is now deemed unethical by the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics, which speaks out against “deliberate[ly] distort[ing] facts or context.”

Today there are child labor laws in effect that prevent children from working as hard as the newsies did. The National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) was founded in 1904, seeking to abolish all child labor. The first legislative movie was made in 1907 when the NCLC was chartered by Congress and rapidly gained support.But children are, in fact, are exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act’s child labor, wage, and hours provisions. States typically regulate the treatment of children in paper delivery.

While children are protected legally, some may not be protected during their work. Children were still the main source of paper delivery up until the 1990s. In 1980, there were at least one million children delivering papers. In the years where they were the primary delivery source, many were kidnapped and killed on their routes. An example of this is the case of Johnny Gosch. Gosch was abducted in 1982 on his paper route and is still considered missing 32 years later. Many speculate that Gosch was killed, but family and those close to the case insist that he is still out there, hiding. Other children have been kidnapped and killed on their routes and some children still work as paper carriers. Is the danger really worth it to get the morning paper?

johnn gosch

Johnny Gosch

More recently, the Disney movie was adapted into a Broadway musical which grossed over $109 million dollars during its two -year run at the Nederlander Theatre, beginning in 2012. The show won two Tony Awards for having the best score and the best choreography. However, the show’s success did not stop there; the US Tour of the production is currently in Cleveland, one of its many stops. The show’s mainstream success in the theatre makes it a show many parents take their children to see, exposing children to the unfair treatment of other children at that time.


Newsies Original Broadway Cast Recording

The movie Newsies assisted in shedding light on the different ways news was handled during the Gilded Age. While it took some liberties in establishing the newsboys’ poor treatment. Children still deliver papers, but their work is subject to more strict regulation. While governments may regulate their work, their safety is something that cannot be regulated. Many children have been abducted on their routes, some of which have never been found. This form of newspaper delivery has, for the most part, fizzled out. The story of the newsboys, however, has not. Newsies opened on Broadway at the Nederlander Theatre in 2012. The story of the newsboys and their strike speaks volumes about their treatment and their time period.


8 thoughts on “Carrying the Banner: Newsies and Its Significance

  1. Great analysis of the historical context of “Newsies.” I saw and loved the Broadway musical, but what I found most haunting with your paper was the Johnny Gosch story. When I googled him I discovered he was the second child whose face appeared on a milk carton (just a side note). The fact that you included his disappearance really shows how much of a risky business this was for children.


  2. I’m really glad someone in the class decided to look at Newsies. I still listen to the soundtrack sometimes (Carrying the Banner = my jam). Personally, I wish you’d have mentioned Crutchy somewhere in your project though. Apart from him being my favorite character, I think you could have made a point of how the newsboys would play to their disabilities in order to sell more ‘papes.


  3. You did a great job explaining the connection between Newsies and its place in history. I’m also a huge fan of the use of the pull-out quote at the beginning, but that might just be because I’m a huge nerd. Your paper covered sensationalism and the newsboy issue very well. I like it.


  4. Newsies is the bomb. Makes me want to rewatch it, but it isn’t on Netflix. What a shame.

    Since the strike happened in 1899 and the movie wasn’t released until over 90 years later, it makes me wonder if there was significant “research” done into the event. I wonder what kind of records exist or if they talked to any surviving family members. Like you said, liberties were clearly taken, but someone probably took those pains to make sure that it was historically accurate to the extent that it was.


  5. So happy you wrote about Newsies! It’s hands down one of my favorites. I thought your piece was really well written and I loved getting to know the background of the story, because most of it I did not know! I also found it really interesting that you considered the dangers of the “newsboy” time period- I feel like a lot of people look at it in a nostalgic way instead of taking into account the realistic elements of it, and I found that really eye opening and interesting!


    1. Much like everyone else on here, I love the Disney movie! Grew up on it and it is still my favorite movie, so it is really interesting to look at the historical accuracy of the movie itself. Being a Disney movie, I generally assumed that it had its fair share of inaccuracies, but I never took the liberty to research it.

      Furthermore, I’ve never fully considered modern day examples of the dangers of children in the newspaper business. I understood the problems back then (the poverty, the children on the streets). I generally acknowledge young children, in the modern era, selling newspapers as just one of those things done at that age. I never considered the lack of safety but now it seems glaringly obvious.


  6. I saw Newsies when I went to New York last summer, and it quickly became one of my favorites. However, I never really considered the dangers of their situation until now. I began to research on this topic, and I was surprised to find that one of the most life-threatening things newsies did was jump onto trams for free transportation. Several of them would fall and end up with crushed limbs or worse. Instead of getting proper medical treatment, they simply used these disabilities to garner sales from sympathetic buyers!

    Furthermore, reading your essay reminded me of my trip to Turkey two years ago. When my family walked through the streets, we frequently encountered children selling various products, and they would often come up to me and try to convince me to buy a certain item. Some of these children were only 5 years old! I remember being completely astonished by the whole ordeal. It seemed so wrong that children younger than me had to spend their entire day in the streets selling products instead of playing games and having fun. When I was reading your essay, I realized how much I simply accepted children selling newspapers in the streets as normal for that time period. However, now that I’ve connected it to my own modern experience, I now realize how dangerous it would have been.


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