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Photograph attributed to Lewis Wikes Hine. Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, from the records of the National Child Labor Committee (U.S.), LOT 7480, v. 2, no. 1375[P&P].
In the teens, being 5 or 6 or 12 and poor meant you worked. Gauzy paper flowers, fragrant cigars, beaded purses—these were assembled by the nimble hands of little girls. Boys entered the coal miners’ cages. They slit open codfish. They poured glass. They also sold newspapers. Compared to 12 hours in an ironworks or cannery, this sounds like soft work, but newsies were not employed by newspaper publishers. They bought bundles from them outright, anxiously pacing the streets till they’d sold their last one—there were no buybacks—and it was not unusual for an 8-year-old kid to walk the streets all night. After they’d sold their papers for the day, kids nicknamed “Livers” or “Little Fattie” converged at Skeeter’s or the Hotel de Bum or maybe just an alley, huddling around a barrel fire, smoking pipes and hand-rolled smokes, and shooting craps. A kid might lose a whole day’s wages that way, and he would be afraid to go home, if he had one. This boy, who stood on the corner of Sixth and Olive one warm spring evening 99 years ago, is too kempt to be homeless, but there’s no missing that hollow look, that realization that dusk is falling—and there is still a thick stack of papers cradled under his arm.