"Anyone, whom business or curiosity has taken thorough Park Row or across Printing House Square in the midnight hour, when the air is filled with the roar of great presses spinning with printers' ink on endless rolls of white paper the history of the world in the twenty-four hours that have just passed away, has seen little groups of these boys hanging about the newspaper offices; in winter, when snow is on the streets, fighting for warm spots around the grated vent-holes that let out the heat and steam from the underground press-rooms with their noise and clatter, and in summer playing craps and 7-11 on the curb for their hard-earned pennies, with all the absorbing concern of hardened gamblers. This is their beat."1
Outcault also may have been influenced by the works of Stephen Crane and Jacob Riis, both of whom shone the spotlight on poor living conditions in New York's tenement districts, inspiring others to do so as well.2 Published in 1890, Riis's How the Other Half Lives details the lives of the poor in New York City and takes particular interest in ethnic neighborhoods and what Riis calls the "Street Arabs"—homeless children:
"The Street Arab has all the faults and all the virtues of the lawless life he leads. Vagabond that he is, acknowledging no authority and owing no allegiance to anybody or anything, with his grimy fist raised against society whenever it tries to coerce him, he is as bright and sharp as the weasel, which, among all the predatory beasts, he most resembles."3
|Jacob A. Riis
Riis may exaggerate at times for the sake of his argument (some of his urchin shots were posed) but his text represents a growing concern over the "dangerous classes"; poor living conditions might, after all, make workers reject the capitalist system and revolt against the rich. In his call to urge middle and upper-class urbanites to address the problem, he describes baby farms in which impoverished adults take in two to four babies, feed them sour milk, and give them paregoric to stay quiet until they die. After that, they take in more babies in order to get money for doing so.4 He cites a number of statistics to support his argument for reform, including that of the 2,633 people charged with street begging in 1889, 15 percent, the highest amount, were Irish: "With the Irishmen the case is different. The tenement, especially its lowest type, appears to possess a peculiar affinity for the worse nature of the Celt, to whose best and strongest instincts it does violence, and soonest and most thoroughly corrupts him. The 'native' twelve per cent represent the result of this process, the hereditary beggar of the second or third generation in the slums."5 He notes that 5,335,396 immigrants landed at Castle Garden from 1869-89, and in 1889 alone, 43,090 Irish arrived there.6 Riis blamed the tenements for creating horrendous overcrowding conditions and a population that local schools could not support. In 1888 the tenements of New York housed 143,243 children under the age of five.7 In one tenement with 478 tenants, only seven children said they went to school: "The rest gathered all the instruction they received running for beer for their elders."8 He cites a poll of a downtown classroom showing that out of 48 students, 20 had never seen Brooklyn Bridge (a five-minute walk away) and only three had been to Central Park.9 Such conditions led Street Arabs to mischief, no doubt—which may have attracted the attention of Outcault, who might also have walked by the scenes Riis witnessed in New York. Outcault in some ways identifies the Kid with the worst the tenement has to offer: his head is bald because children's heads often were shaved to get rid of lice there.10 Calling New York "the most charitable city in the world,"11 Riis displayed Victorian optimism about the possibilities of reform, but also showed the condescending tone that could infiltrate reform-minded Victorians; the rich and middle class could not help the poor with donations, but by helping tenement-dwellers grow self-respect and independence.12
Following the success of Riis's book, Stephan Crane's Maggie: A Girl of the Streets was published first in 1893 and more successfully in 189613; Crane was also a journalist, and his work followed an increase in the 1880s of tenement fiction.14 Crane's text reveals "Hully Gee"—the Kid's catchphrase—was probably already in use by the city's immigrants by the time the Yellow Kid said it. Crane also wrote the article "Experiment in Misery" (1894), for which he dressed as a bum and spent the night in a flophouse.15 (more on Victorians' fascination with the slum)
1 Riis, Jacob A. How the Other Half Lives. New York: Penguin Books, 1997. 149.
2 Harper's Weekly for example.
3 Riis 147.
4 Riis 143.
5 Riis 187.
6 Riis 222.
7 Riis 219 (appendix).
8 Riis 136.
9 Riis 137.
Bill. Introduction. R. F. Outcault's The Yellow Kid: A Centennial Celebration of the Kid Who Started the Comics. Northampton, MA: Kitchen Sink Press, 1995. 24.
11 Riis 144.
12 Riis 190
13 Riis 136.
14 Jones, Gavin. Strange Talk: The Politics of Dialect Literature in Gilded Age America. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1999. 134.
15 Gandal, Keith. The Virtues of the Vicious: Jacob Riis, Stephen Crane and the Spectacle of the Slum. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. 14.