Backtrack: Thanksgiving Parade

The Daily Grind: An annual Thanksgiving Day parade was a rare bright spot in the lives of turn-of-the-century newsboys.
Lined up for a Thanksgiving parade, the neatly attired Station K newsboys in this photograph look like fresh-faced youngsters straight out of central casting. But their lives were more Dickensian than Disney-esque. Often starting around age 7, these children rose at unearthly hours, in every type of weather, to buy the day’s papers at their assigned stations and then hit the streets to resell them to readers, earning a penny or two for each copy sold.

Some 600 boys hawked papers on the streets of Indianapolis in 1899, according to an Indianapolis News story from that year. That summer, the newsboys of New York went on strike when publishers inflated their costs. At issue: an extra 10 cents per 100 newspapers charged to the boys. (The story inspired the 1992 movie Newsies and a subsequent Broadway musical.) That led to similar strikes around the country, including in Indianapolis.

In 1899, newsboys went on strike when publishers inflated their costs. The story inspired the 1992 movie Newsies and a Broadway musical.

But in November 1901, these young laborers had a day of fun, starting with a procession from Monument Circle to Tomlinson Hall, which then stood just west of City Market. Tables stretching the length of the entire main floor were laid out for the annual Thanksgiving dinner the News hosted for its young sellers, also attended by the governor, mayor, and other local boldface names. It was a rare opportunity for the boys to sit in a place of honor, their family and friends crowding the balcony, and be served by volunteers from the Young Women’s Christian Association.

Even better, perhaps, was the live turkey awarded to the boy who had sold the most copies of the News’s noon edition. John Nelson, 17, was the one who carried off the “Great Bird,” as reported by the News. The story recounted John’s typically hardscrabble bio: He started selling papers when he was 8, and since then, had quit school and worked at a saw factory, as a telegraph boy for Western Union, and in a bakery—where an accident mangled his hand so severely, he had to give up other work and make his way only by selling papers and polishing shoes. John’s industrious nature earned him the year’s top sales of $7–$8 a week, roughly equivalent to $182 today, though his net earnings would have been far less. Given those numbers, the $40 that John got for selling the 44-pound Great Bird he won that day was something to be extra thankful for.