Work in the Cities

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Two newsgirls in Wilmington, Delaware, 1910. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

In the first few decades of the twentieth century, many urban poor and working-class children worked in the “street trades,” selling newspapers and magazines, shining shoes, making deliveries, and distributing advertisements. A 1928 report by the Children’s Bureau estimated that there were 40,000 newspaper boys working in cities with an average age of twelve years old. Newspaper hours could be longer than the ten to twelve hour days endured by children working in factories, as the boys would line the streets at 5:00 a.m. to sell early morning papers, and might stay out past midnight to sell evening editions. Unlike children laboring in mills and factories, the boys and girls employed in street trades could enjoy the relative freedom and independence that these positions afforded, as well as ample opportunity to explore their city.

With the street as their workplace, "bootblacks" and newspaper boys and girls experienced the same hazards as their peers who used the streets for play, including predatory adults, vehicular traffic, and theft. Their longer workdays limited their schooling, or made it altogether impossible.