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Ten thousand vagrant children lived in the city in eleven wards, and over three thousand children, of whom two thousand were girls between the ages of eight and sixteen, were regularly trained to theft. New York was unable to deal effectively with the tides of immigration that tripled the cityís population. Industrialization and the Civil War induced adversity and encouraged epidemics such as cholera, typhus, trachoma and favus. Delinquents, prostitutes, beggars, and drunkards dwelled in contaminated tenements and rat infested slums.

Street Arabs nightly quarters in 1888.
Jacob Riis Collection, Library of Congress

In 1853, sixteen thousand criminals were arrested during the year, one fourth were less than the age of twenty-one and eight hundred were under fifteen. These children had no other way to earn a living and no one to teach them better. Two thirds of New York lived in cramped apartments or tenements. Thousand of children ended up working on the streets of New York in the 1850s, for any number of events could send parents and children reeling in opposite directions. The children were feared and reviled as street rats and guttersnipes, vagrants, beggars and waifs of the city.

Newsboys were the sons, and occasionally the daughters, of day laborers, piece workers and traders. Many were the children of immigrants. In the 1850s, New York claimed between five and six hundred newsboys, most of whom came from poor Irish or German families. The adolescent labor force expanded in the 1880s and 1890s when eleven million new immigrants poured into the country. Working-class children entered the adult labor force between the ages of six and fifteen.

Relief and social welfare agencies were unknown, and the city lacked resources for help. New York had the highest death rate of any major city in the world. Thousands of vagrant children roamed the streets of Lower Manhattan seeking food and shelter. They lived by their wits, sleeping in barrels, under steps, and in old boxes. They dined on discarded remnants. The city was unwilling to accept responsibility for them, and most ignored the urchins. Though many children were referred to as newsboys, as it was challenging to differentiate among them. Their suffering and neglect lasted three quarters of a century.


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