The Little People Of Old New York City

“That ignorance plays its part, as well as poverty and bad hygienic surroundings, in the sacrifice of life is of course inevitable.”

–Jacob Riis

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Estimates vary, but in the late 1800s there were anywhere from 20-to-40,000 homeless children making it on their own in New York City. The legends of the newsboys and the girls who sold corn-on-the-cob on street corners demand our attention today.

One-hundred and twenty-six years ago, when Jacob Riis took his photographer’s lens to the slums and tenements of old New York City, he was embarking on uncharted territory – that of a photojournalist. His actions, by way of his book “How the Other Half Lives”, actually helped to foster change in the slums. He did it with in your face guilt by way of the children and the elderly poor. In reading an engaging story from history, it is not uncommon to have feelings for the subjects. Then, the mind starts to wander and one has to reel themselves back in with something similar to “My goodness, here I am waxing sentimental for someone who’s been dead for eighty or ninety years!”. Then, I find that I have collected enough husks to share, so why not make a blog post.

Children were to be invisible. Seen and not heard. Older street boys who were not yet old enough to join a real gang, but too old to be playing marbles carried with them the moniker “street arabs”. They made money as bootblacks and some were probably just your local bullies of the block. The younger boys were called of course, newsboys. Such a romantic and affectionate role the newsboys had at the time, there was even a former newsboy who became a crowd-favorite, bare-knuckle prizefighter named “Swipes the newsboy” (real name Simon Besser). He was said to have killed a man in the ring. All of this long before regular and sanctioned bouts and modern rules of the sweet science.

Young girls would sell items on the street corners, whether food, sweets or trinkets. Girls aged 12 to 18 could waitress and serve booze at any of the hundreds of dives, wearing skimpy outfits. Family ties are what usually indentured a girl or boy to work in a dangerous factory, to help the family with money, etc. When one sees the old photos of child labor – it was not the child’s choice, and a homeless child would rather risk life in the street than succumb to such hell as factory work. Street girls did what they had to do also.

However small these lads were, it was still a man’s world, so the street arabs and newsboys also had their social time: mini-saloons and watering holes for a game of faro or craps. The street arabs and newsboys alike could get a “three-cent whiskey” or curry favors from the little girls that worked in the backrooms. And these are the more or less homeless children, seen back then as some sort of miniature adults in society. Most poor kids were expected to take care of themselves at a certain age, and whether they left the house voluntarily or were kicked out remains to be seen. Certainly, there were religious ministers and relief agencies aplenty, but the city was just too enormous.

An adolescent gang of boys who called themselves the “Baxter Street Dudes” even operated their own little theatre in the 1870s – they charged admission, put on “blood and thunder” plays of the era, which are not unlike the lure of “action movies” for boys in the present day. Under their leader, Baby-Faced Willie, the Grand Duke’s Theatre functioned for many years as a hideout and dive for these young people. Constant fighting at the theatre finally led cops to shut the ad hoc playhouse down. But as legend would have it, these kids wrote and starred in their own plays and musicals, something that would be mimicked forty years later on film in Hal Roach’s “The L’il Rascals” television show.

But back to Jacob Riis’ books (he did a few sequels), of which the saddest case studies are of Katie and Pietro. This is because they spoke to us. And we don’t know what happened to them. Luckily, both kids were with their families, Pietro sitting at the kitchen table of their tenement flat, as he seems eager to learn his letters and school lessons – his proud father, probably tired as hell after a long day at the docks or pushing a cart looks over his son and with his broken English he says “Pietro is a good boy”.

Father and Pietro

Father and Pietro

And across Manhattan, while Katie helps her mother by cleaning and doing chores. When asked by Jacob Riis what the little one does all day, she simply replied “I scrubs”. But she also went to school. Katie took care of the house, as everybody else in the poor family worked.



And we sign off today by bringing you, the dear reader, a rare photo of The Short-Tails, or Shirt-Tales, a well known NYC gang during the era. They numbered in the fifties. Most of these gangs were just drunks who loved to fight and steal. It’s also hard to look tough wearing a bowler hat, but they did. At least two of them have what seems like that thousand-yard stare from being in one too many battles.

Photo taken by NYPD police boat under a pier as the boys shared a pail of beer

Photo taken by NYPD police boat under a pier as the boys shared a pail of beer


Low Life by Luc Sante

The books of Jacob Riis