In the 19th and early 20th century, newspapers were sold on city streets by young boys, and a few girls. Some of the children – who could be as young as 5 years old — were homeless while others came from poverty-stricken families. Their meals could be few and far between and they were always hungry.
But on Christmas Day, or a day close to it, they ate well thanks to the annual custom of newspapers, philanthropists, mayors, and others who organized feasts for them. Some of the dinners were held in orphan homes and public buildings, but many took place in restaurants.
Turkey was the typical featured food of the newsboys’ dinners. In 1875 the Telegram gave a dinner at Henri Mouquin’s restaurant on Ann Street in New York for over 1,000 boys and a handful of girls. The menu was roast turkey, mashed potatoes, rolls and butter, finished with cake, pie, coffee, and oranges. Nearly identical meals were given across the country for decades to follow, some accompanied by cranberry sauce and side dishes such as corn, peas, celery, and pickles. After dinner the children sometimes received a box of candy to take with them.
The newsboys of Kansas City MO, guests of the mayor, hailed turkey in a little ditty they shouted in a procession from City Hall to Staley & Dunlap’s restaurant on Main street in 1895.
Who are we? Who are we?
We are the newsboys of K. C.
We are the stuff; that’s no bluff;
We eat turkey and never get enough.
A dinner held in a Dallas restaurant in 1899 had a menu that departed radically from the customary dishes [see below]. There was no turkey or pie. And not only was the menu organized into the old-fashioned categories of Fish, Boiled, Roasts, and Entrees, they were not presented in the traditional order of appearance. It also contained quite a variety of assorted dishes, some of them unusual. “Boiled Rallet of Beef” might have referred to Rilettes of beef, which was beef cooked to mush and served on toast.
Boisterous behavior during dinner was expected. The boys cheered loudly for their hosts and entertainers, producing a noise level often described as deafening. Food fights were typical. At the Chequamegon restaurant in Butte MT in 1902, a report said the children “yell, whistle, throw biscuits at each other and occasionally land on each other’s jawbones with a dislocated leg of the bird.” Dinner sponsors often egged on high spirits by giving the newsies tin horns and firecrackers.
As much as the newsboys and newsgirls enjoyed the holiday dinners, the charitable events had their detractors. Reformer Florence Kelley criticized the dinners as well as the newsboys’ lodging houses found in some cities because they encouraged children to work and live independent of their families. She criticized New York City in particular for making newsboys into heroes. Rather than being seen purely as victims, as would be the case today, the boys were often regarded as spunky survivors with potential to succeed in life despite their rough style of living and lack of schooling.
In the early 20th century, states tried to limit child labor. Girls under 14 were barred from jobs involving selling. Boys under 10 could not sell papers and those aged 10 to 14 had to obtain written parental consent before a badge was issued to permit them to sell papers in the streets. Still, the dinners continued through the 1920s and 1930s. In the 1930s Bishop Cafeterias in seven cities held annual newsboys’ dinners to honor the chain’s late founder Carl Stoddard who had been a newsboy as a child.
Newsboys’ dinners could sometimes be found into the 1960s, but the children were absent, having been replaced with adult news vendors.
© Jan Whitaker, 2016