You may have seen the Disney movie Newsies, featuring a teenaged Christian Bale, and know all the lyrics to "Seize the Day." It's no wonder the true story of the New York newsboys' strike became a film and later a Broadway adaptation; it's an inspirational tale of how kids - primarily orphaned boys and street urchins - took on publishing tycoons in 1899 and won.
Led by Kid Blink, a charismatic newsboy, the strikers demanded a raise. Kid Blink told over 5,000 followers, "Ain't that 10 cents worth as much to us as it is to Hearst and Pulitzer, who are millionaires?"
Kid Blink might have read the papers he was selling. The newsboys knew Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, the two wealthiest media moguls in the country, competed to sell papers. Throughout the 1890s, the tycoons managed to raise their circulation to millions each day - but an army of street urchins brought their empires crumbling down in only two weeks.
Like other well-known strikes, including Rockefeller's Ludlow incident and the London matchgirls' strike, the newsboys' strike made headlines, with the protesting children vowing they would "soitenly not" use physical force. Instead, the newsies strategically took down two tycoons by outsmarting them.
Newsboys on the New York streets had to buy bundles of papers at a wholesale price to resell individually, hoping to make a profit. During the Spanish-American War in 1898, newspapers raised the price for a bundle of papers to 60 cents, cutting into the newsboys' profits.
After the war, all the papers except William Randolph Hearst's Journal and Joseph Pulitzer's World lowered the price back to 50 cents a bundle. By the summer of 1899, newsboys were barely subsisting. On average, they earned only 26 cents a day working long hours. So the newsboys decided to strike to protest the costly papers.
On July 18, 1899, Long Island newsies learned a deliveryman for the Journal was shorting their bundles, cheating them out of wages. Consequently, they tipped the man's wagon and stole his papers. This action triggered a larger strike, as the newsboys demanded a rollback to 1898 prices. The next day, the Manhattan newsboys created a union and announced they were on strike.
The newsboys chose the perfect moment to strike; the Brooklyn streetcar drivers were also on strike that week. Thus, according to an 11-year-old newsboy, "De cops is all busy!"
The July 1899 strike significantly disrupted New York's newspaper business. The editor of the New York World wrote to Joseph Pulitzer, warning "the newsboys' strike has grown into a menacing affair." He also reported, "Practically all the boys in New York and adjacent towns have quit selling... The advertisers have abandoned the papers... It is really a very extraordinary demonstration."
The newspapers depended on underpaid child laborers to distribute their papers. The newspaper tycoons immediately felt the results - at the World, the paper slashed their press run from 360,000 papers a day to 125,000 a day. The stunned editor said, "It really is remarkable the success these boys have had."
Led by charismatic newsie Kid Blink, the newsboys met at Irving Hall during the strike to win over public support. At least 5,000 newsies gathered to attack the tycoons. During a rousing speech, Kid Blink targeted the news tycoons directly:
Ain't that 10 cents worth as much to us as it is to Hearst and Pulitzer, who are millionaires? Well, I guess it is. If they can't spare it, how can we? I'm trying to figure how 10 cents on 100 papers can mean more to a millionaire than it does to newsboys, an' I can't see it!