Early Newspapers Employ Kids

Printer's devil at foot of tableThe newspaper business was one area that gave children an opportunity to work while learning a skill. Girls helped with typesetting, while boys worked as newsboys and "printer's devils."

Newsboys hawked papers on street corners, working hard for a meager wage. They had to buy the papers they sold. If they re-sold all the papers, they made a profit. If they didn't, they were stuck with the papers and no profit.

Strike!

In 1898 about 200 newsboys in Des Moines grew dissatisfied with their low wages and went on strike. Strikers gathered outside the office of the Daily News to keep other boys from selling papers.

Isaac "Red" Oransky led strikers in their demand for a reduction in the price the newsboys paid for the paper. The story faded from public interest before a settlement was reported.

Printer's Devils

Another job filled by young boys in the newspaper office was the job of printer's devil. Amidst the confusion and clutter of an early newspaper office, the printer's devil did the dirty work. Young devils—named for their inky appearance at the end of a long day—mopped floors, picked up scattered type, cleaned out furnaces and scrubbed ink rollers and presses.

Printer's devils also cleaned balls of sheepskin that were used for applying ink to the type. After use, the balls of dried sheepskin were soaked in pails, wrung out by hand, then layered with paper and laid out on the floor. The devil walked back and forth over the skin until it was clean and dry, replacing wet paper with dry until the process was complete. The strong odor of the job stuck in the memory of the boys who cleaned the sheepskins.

Many boys who became printer's devils hoped to learn the craft of printing or writing. Along with those who worked in other industries, printer's devils risked developing diseases, such as tuberculosis, from poor working conditions.

Kid Publishers

Two enterprising young boys living in Iowa City in the early 1900s worked in the newspaper industry—but not as newsboys or printer's devils. William and Edward Chamberlain were the youngest publishers in Iowa when they began producing their newspaper. Measuring two-by-two inches, The Grammar School Weekly was said to be the smallest newspaper in the world.

Visiting a newspaper office sparked the brothers' interest in journalism. They convinced their mother, Irene Chamberlain who worked as a bookkeeper at an Iowa City printing house, to buy them a printing press. In 1908 the first issue rolled off the presses. William, 8, and Edward, 12, were in business. With a crew of neighborhood kids, the brothers covered school and other news. Subscribers were expected to pay in advance.

The brothers' careers in journalism grew with them and they both became newspapermen. Although the fate of The Grammar School Weekly is unknown, it is known that the brothers left Iowa in their 20s to pursue journalism careers elsewhere.

Laws About Working Kids

While the newspaper industry provided opportunities for ambitious kids, eventually laws changed the hiring practices of businesses. By 1935 Iowa established laws that restricted the work of children. The laws affected the children who worked at newspapers. Today it's not unusual to find kids delivering newspapers, but they no longer work as printer's devils!

Adapted from an article printed in The Goldfinch 18, No. 4 (Summer 1997). Iowa City: State Historical Society of Iowa.
© State Historical Society of Iowa

 

 


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