New York City----In the 1850s, New York claimed between five and six hundred newsboys, most of whom came from poor Irish or German families. The adolescent labor force expanded in the 1880s and 1890s when eleven million new immigrants poured into the country. Working-class children entered the adult labor force between the ages of six and fifteen. Newsboys were the sons, and occasionally the daughters, of day laborers, piece workers and traders. Many were the children of immigrants. Ten thousand vagrant children lived in the city in eleven wards, and over three thousand children, of whom two thousand were girls between the ages of eight and sixteen, were regularly trained to theft. These children had no other way to earn a living and no one to teach them better.New York was unable to deal effectively with the tides of immigration that tripled the city’s population. Industrialization and the Civil War induced adversity and encouraged epidemics such as cholera, typhus, trachoma and favus. Delinquents, prostitutes, beggars, and drunkards dwelled in contaminated tenements and rat infested slums. Thousands of children ended up working on the streets of New York in the 1850s, for any number of events could send parents and children reeling in opposite directions. The children were feared and reviled as street rats and guttersnipes, vagrants, beggars, and waifs of the city. In 1853 alone, thirty thousand children went unchecked on the streets, sixteen thousand criminals were arrested during the year, one fourth were less than the age of twenty-one and eight hundred were under fifteen.
Relief and social welfare agencies were unknown, and the city lacked resources for help. New York had the highest death rate of any major city in the world. Thousands of vagrant children roamed the streets of Lower Manhattan seeking food and shelter. They lived by their wits, sleeping in ash barrels, under door steps, in gutters or alleys, and other out of the way places. They dined on discarded remnants for sustenance. The city was unwilling to accept responsibility for them, and most ignored the urchins. Times were challenging, but the truly visionary found ways to make a difference in children's lives.
The first organized effort to help homeless newsboys was made in 1853 when Charles Loring Brace, a Methodist/ Protestant minister, started a newsboys lodging home and founded the Children's Aid Society. Brace realized that what the children needed most was wholesome food and a warm place to sleep. He and others established newsboys lodging homes, which provided an environment in which these young wage earners could enjoy a semblance of family. The newsboys that lived at many of the Children's Aid Society's lodge homes inspired many Horatio Alger dime novel narratives of rags-to-riches, and the triumph of poor boys in the face of life's great obstacles.
As the New York Children’s Aid Society cared for increasing numbers of children in 1854, Brace saw opportunities for the children. Envisioning new lives for these destitute youngsters, Brace devised an emigration plan to send them away from the overpopulated city streets to find family homes in the West. He knew that families in the western United States could take them in, offering them provisions, a healthy environment, and opportunities unheard of in the city. And so ran the "orphan trains" from East Coast cities to all points west across America in a time span of seventy-five years (1854-1929).
In 1869, the New York Foundling Hospital founded by Sister Mary Irene Fitzgibbons of the Sisters of Charity began life saving efforts reserved for infants, young children and unmarried women. In May of 1873, the New York Foundling began sending children to Catholic families in Maryland, and later to other states in the West and South known as the "Baby Trains" and "Baby Specials." The combined effort of two of the largest agencies, the New York Children's Aid Society and the New York Foundling Hospital, along with placements from Boston and other East Coast cities, carried more than a quarter of million children to their new lives across America on what has became known as the orphan trains. These trains became the largest mass migration of children ever to take place on American soil.