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“Only a little newsboy …”

By: Ardis E. Parshall - August 28, 2008

The ragged and suffering yet hardworking boy with a heart o’ gold was a staple figure in Victorian literature. One poem tells about a man who encountered a newsboy on a snowy evening, went home to his own warm fireside, then decided to rescue the child from the streets and raise him as a son.

Well, I arose to go,
And bring the little outcast
To the shelter of my home;
No longer should he suffer want,
No longer homeless roam.

Alas! When the poet found the boy, he was lying in an alley surrounded by others of his fraternity:

I heard him say, “I’m dying;
I’m going there to-night,
Where father and my mother is –
It’s warm up there, and bright.”
And then he said, “Good-bye, boys.”
The little outcast died.
His papers folded carefully
Were lying at his side.
Too late I sought to save him;
He lived unloved, unknown, –
Only a little orphaned lad,
Cast out to die alone.

I suspect that their lives were pretty tough, if not often as bathetic as this poem suggests. The boys worked early and late, for mere pennies, and were subject to foul weather, bullies, and the dangers of darting in and out of traffic and between train cars.

The iconic newsboy had his place in early 20th century Mormon culture. Several of the ads run by Beneficial Life Insurance on the back covers of LDS publications featured newsboys in their little morality plays, implying that if you didn’t insure your life with Beneficial, your own noble lad would be reduced to the miserable life of a newsboy in order to support his widowed mother after your premature death. Newsboys found their way onto the front cover of at least one issue of the Juvenile Instructor, too, in 1915.

One noble newsboy played a starring role in a 1925 Conference address by John A. Widtsoe:

I like to recall my experience with a little newsboy. My wife and I stood at the west door of the Hotel Utah, in the company of a most distinguished American and his wife. We were talking about the gospel of Jesus Christ as taught by the Latter-day Saints. Somebody said something about the Priesthood, and mention was made of the fact that in this Church all men may make themselves worthy to hold the Priesthood. Someone remarked – perhaps my wife – that even the boys after a certain age held the Priesthood. Just then a little lad came along the sidewalk calling out the afternoon paper – “Deseret News! Deseret News!” On the spur of the moment I said: “Perhaps that little boy holds the Priesthood.” I called him to me. He thought I was a tourist, about to buy a paper. I said: “Are you a ‘Mormon,’ my boy?”

He straightened up, put his heels together, looked me in the eye, and said “I am.”

I said: “Do you hold the Priesthood?”

He said: “Yes, sir, I hold the Priesthood.”

I said: “What office in the Priesthood do you hold?”

The little boy gave me the salute of the Boy Scout and replied: “I am a Deacon, sir.”

There was the fearlessness of the child, the pride of his possession, though understanding only as a child, dimly, the meaning, the spirit and the vastness of this latter-day cause. We who have grown to maturity, must possess, in a larger degree, the same fearlessness to conquer ourselves and to make ourselves worthy of the call which has come to us, to go out to teach the nations that which we have received.

Newsboys worked seven days a week – no Sabbath for them. This bothered the Sunday School board in the Utah Stake. In the 19-teens, the Sunday train bringing newspapers from Salt Lake arrived in Provo about 9:30. Because Sunday School was always held at 10:00, the approximately 40 Provo boys who earned their living peddling papers on Sunday couldn’t attend Sunday School.

The Provo train depot was within the boundaries of the Provo Sixth Ward (a ward I once lived in), so the Sunday School board spoke to the Sixth Ward bishop and arranged to use his building for an early session – 8:30 to 9:15 – of Sunday School tailored especially to the interests of the newsboys. Soon the class was averaging between 25 and 30 boys every Sunday morning. Did they come for the stories? the music? the refreshments donated by the Startup Candy Company?

As simple as it seems, this Sunday School was a major break from well-established Mormon traditions of what constituted a Sunday School and when and for whom it was held. These boys – pictured in about 1917 – seem to have been pleased by the efforts of teachers C.R. Johnson, Hermese Peterson, and Mamie Huish, all of Provo.



7 Comments »

  1. I am glad the church leaders of that time and place made an accommodation for the needs of these industrious lads who probably worked as they did of financial necessity, though they deserved a Sabbath day’s rest as much as anyone.

    My own experience with newspaper home delivery lasted about a year. I was ill-suited to the requirement of being there each day on a fixed route, no matter the weather or how I felt that day, with a delivery deadline that allowed for no delays. I much preferred to wander and take my time. The discipline was good for me and I am glad I did it, but for me the money was ultimately not worth the trouble. It was also not a necessity to the family budget. I quit the job so that I could have the freedom that meant more to me.

    The Sabbath was of little concern to my UU family, but it would be a major concern to me now. Though we have not discussed it much, my wife and I appear to have three rules: 1. go to church, 2. don’t work for money (unless we reeealy need to get something done) and 3. don’t spend money (except for travel and medical emergencies). The exceptions trouble me (except the last), and there are all of the other things we should be doing, but that is how Sunday plays out for us. Sabbath observance is troublesome. But if necessity drove me to work every Sunday, I would be grateful for a church program that helped me put some spiritual content into an otherwise work-filled Sabbath.

    Comment by Eric Boysen — August 28, 2008 @ 6:33 am

  2. Great post, Ardis. There’s a lesson in there about how accommodations should be decided, and it’s one we all should consider carefully.

    Comment by Ray — August 28, 2008 @ 8:32 am

  3. Thank you, Eric and Ray, for thoughtful comments. Both much appreciated.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 28, 2008 @ 2:59 pm

  4. Ardis,
    As a former urchin delivering the Schenectady “Union-Star” through the monumental snow drifts of Upstate New York’s snow belt, I appreciate this one too. I did not work on Sundays but did have to “collect” from my customers on Friday nights. Sometimes I found them in the neighborhood watering holes of the tough industrial northeast, where the Word of Wisdom was not widely observed. When I would arrive home well after dark on these cold Friday nights, my mother always had a great fish chowder awaiting me from her vast collection of family receipes from The Rock (Newfoundland). Part of my route lay in a Polish neighborhood, and I know that some of my customers spoke no English but nonetheless subscribed to the “Union-Star” (as well as a Polish-language paper) as an act of optimism or sense of association with their adopted country. These customers were among my nicest in the sense of their treatment of a kid with whom they had difficulty communicating, whereas a few others elsewhere on my route were miserable in their behavior, teaching in the process some early lessons in life about variations in character and how one deals with it.

    Comment by Bill MacKinnon — August 28, 2008 @ 10:41 pm

  5. Thanks, Bill. FWIW, I remember once when I was quite small (it was in a house we moved from when I was 10) my mother explaining what she was doing as she worked on the monthly bookkeeping. Tithing came first, she said, as she wrote out that check. Next came putting cash into an envelope that went into the drawer on a lamp table, with the instruction, “We never make the paperboy ask twice — that isn’t fair to him.” Everything else came after that.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 29, 2008 @ 6:43 am

  6. “We never make the paperboy ask twice — that isn’t fair to him.”

    What wonderful words – for much more than that particular application.

    Comment by Ray — August 29, 2008 @ 7:30 am

  7. Ardis,
    My kind of mother!
    Bill

    Comment by Bill MacKinnon — August 29, 2008 @ 11:04 am

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