Life in Lower Manhattan at the turn of the century
The Five Boroughs
In 1898--only a year before the strike!--the five boroughs of Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island were consolidated to form New York City. (Brooklyn and Queens, for the record, are both part of Long Island.) Prior to that, New York City consisted only of Manhattan and the Bronx; Brooklyn was its own city, and Queens and Staten Island were largely rural areas. If you write stories set before 1898, please keep this in mind. A Brooklynite at that time was not a New Yorker and might actually have said, "I'm goin' across the bridge to visit me friends in New York." Here's the best I could find in terms of a brief history of each borough:
In each of the city boroughs, there are and always have been countless neighborhoods. Here's a list for each borough--but remember, not all of these neighborhoods were around, or known by the same names, at the turn of the century:
1899 street map of Manhattan (I almost died when I found this. It shows all the rails of the streetcar system at the time, and also includes parts of Brooklyn, Long Island City, and the Bronx.)
Vintage NYC Maps (The 1903 map of Manhattan is the closest to our time period. These maps are huge but awesome; you just have to zoom in on different sections to see the street names.)
Incredibly detailed map (This hand-drawn map of "Manhattan and adjacent districts" in the 1900s actually depicts individual buildings. The only drawback is that it's so enormous that you have to use the various zoom levels on one small portion at a time to get a proper look.)
How do you know how long it would take your character to get from one place to another? I strongly recommend using Google Maps. Don't laugh; most of the street names and major neighborhoods of New York City have actually remained the same for the past hundred years. If you click "Get directions", type in your two locations, and click the walking icon, you'll know roughly how long the journey would take on foot! (Just try and make sure you don't end up crossing some bridge that didn't exist at the time.)
If the walk is too long for your taste, your characters have other options; they can find either a carriage or an electric trolley that's going in the right direction and hop on the back (or even try and sneak inside the crowded trolley without paying). Horsedrawn carriages generally traveled at about four miles an hour, and the trolleys traveled about ten miles an hour. You could get from Duane Street to the Brooklyn Lodging House in just twelve minutes!
The Real Newsies
No. 9 Duane Street (A fantastic site made by a fellow Newsies fan about the real Duane Street lodging house--and the other lodging houses of the time, including Brooklyn's!)
The Real Strike (1899 articles from the New York Tribune and Times)
Finally, there's so little information to be found on newsgirls at the time that I thought we could at least have some pictures:
Find the newsgirl!
Babynames.com (I recommend the "advanced search" option, which allows you to search for names by country of origin.)
Last names (grouped by country of origin) (With these last two links, you can craft a name for a character of pretty much any nationality.)
Nationalities and Ethnicities in Old New York
While turn-of-the-century New York was obviously a melting pot, with people from countless cultures living and working close together, ethnic tensions were still high. I've read about major conflict between the black and white communities, the blacks and the Irish, Irish and Italians, Irish/Jews, Italians/Jews...the list goes on. The reasons for these tensions were numerous--competition over jobs, different religious and cultural values, maybe even the simple need to feel superior to another group (since they all experienced poverty and hardship at one time or another).
I like to think, however, that the newsies--young people out on their own, free from any prejudices their parents might have held, living under the same roof as kids from many other backgrounds--would have been more accepting than most. In the newsie community, it didn't matter if you were black or white, Irish or Italian; your lodging house was your family, and anyone else who sold on their own turf was all right in your book. That said, I strongly encourage folks to make characters who are immigrants or the children of immigrants, or come from ethnic neighborhoods. Cultural diversity is a major part of the flavor of the city, both then and now.
Czech (then known as Bohemian)
Freetranslation.com (for when you want to add an extra touch of authenticity by having an immigrant character say something in their native tongue)
Horsedrawn carriages (These were still fairly common at the turn of the century.)
Streetcars/Trolleys (Electric trolleys had, by 1900, become the main form of transportation in the city. See the "Maps" section for a map of the rail system.)
The elevated railway (What this page doesn't mention is that the streets under the railway were instantly rendered dark and noisy--making them undesirable to live on, as well as prime locations for mugging and murder. Thus, wherever the El went, seedy slums sprang up.)
The Staten Island Ferry
Science and Technology
Of the 20th century
The short version: Women and girls at this time wore dresses, or blouses paired with long skirts that covered the ankles. It was considered a bit of a scandal to go outdoors without a hat. And we all know the traditional newsboy's outfit: shirt, pants, suspenders, sometimes a vest, and the all-important newsboy cap. As for underwear, girls wore a long nightgown-like garment called a chemise under their dresses. (Bras were not invented until 1913.) Beneath the chemise, they wore cotton or woolen underpants that came to below the knee; these were known as drawers, knickers, or bloomers. Boys wore shorts, which were also known as drawers or knickers, and often an undershirt. For more detailed info:
19th-century Fashion (mostly women's)
The 1890s in fashion (men's and women's)
Awesome pictures (I assume you all know better than to get ideas from the Steampunk section. ^_^)
Food and Drink
The temperance movement (If anyone creates a newsie called Temperance who tries to get everyone else to lay off the booze, I'll love you forever.)
America at School
19th-century Occupations (These are for London, but would generally apply in the U.S. too.)
American labor in the 20th century
Insane asylums (Hint: They were super sketchy.)
Disability rights timeline
The working girls of New York
Hobbies and Fun
Arts and Entertainment
19th-century social dance
As with nationality and ethnicity, religion was a major grounds for conflict in New York at the turn of the century. The huge waves of Irish and Italian immigrants pouring into the city over the past few decades were overwhelmingly Catholic (as were the smaller French and Hispanic populations). And of course, the American "elite"--people who considered themselves superior because their families had been in the country longer, and who were often of English or German descent--were overwhelmingly Protestant. This caused a great deal of vicious anti-Catholic sentiment. Many Protestants distrusted their beautifully decorated churches, elaborate rituals, and devotion to the Virgin Mary, calling them "heretics" and "Papists." They were also stereotyped as being dirty, impoverished, and prone to crime and vice. In fact, it was because of the discrimination they faced that many Catholics were forced into lives of poverty and crime. As vicious as they were, many of the Irish and Italian gangs that formed in the city were originally a form of self-defense, protecting the jobs, political interests, lives, and dignity of an oppressed group.
The same, of course, could be said of the Jewish gangs, since anti-Semitism was sadly alive and well among Protestants and Catholics alike. New York had a large and still-growing Jewish population; the first waves of Jewish immigrants were mostly German, but the later waves were Eastern European, especially Russian, Polish, and Ukrainian. Jews formed their own enclaves--the most famous one being on the Lower East Side--and founded synagogues and Yiddish-language newspapers. Like the Catholics, they were often forced into unskilled, low-paying jobs, but both groups benefited from the social and spiritual strength of their tight-knit families and communities.
Obviously, these weren't the only three religious groups in New York City at the time, though they were by far the largest. African-Americans were mostly Protestant, but were not part of the "elite"; they had their own churches, which were mostly African Methodist Episcopal (AME). (In fact, it was a black man attending a white church that caused a race riot in Five Points in 1834.) Smaller sects of Christianity--such as Mormons, Christian Scientists, and Jehovah's Witnesses--must have had some representation in the city as well. While the Arab population was mostly made up of Christians escaping persecution in their own countries, about 5% of the community was Muslim. Chinese immigrants brought their own religions with them, mainly Buddhism and Daoism. And while there were, of course, atheists and agnostics--and I suspect these views were common among streetwise kids living hard-knock lives, like our newsies--most of them probably kept their beliefs private unless they wanted to become a local scandal.
Victorian courtship (Street kids like the newsies, with their greater freedom and relaxed morals, would most likely just take walks together, go on romantic outings when they could afford it--cheap restaurants, dance halls, vaudeville shows--or steal some alone time in the attic or up on the roof.)
Obviously, the Victorians are now infamous for being sexually repressed and having all sorts of elaborate rules about chaste courtship and waiting till marriage. And these conventions weren't just for the hoity-toity upper class. While lower-class men might have lovers, visit brothels, and make all sorts of bawdy jokes among their friends, lower-class women--especially immigrant women or the daughters of immigrants--were a different story. These women usually came from old-fashioned families with strong religious values and cultures that were almost universally obsessed with safeguarding female "purity." As with everything else, newsgirls in lodging houses would have had a lot more freedom to do as they liked; even so, they would probably have kept pretty quiet about any lovers they had, since being openly sexual was severely stigmatized and would have eliminated any chance of respectability even in lower-class society. And if these girls had a father, grandfather, or brother out there somewhere--or even any uncles or male cousins!--they would risk their wrath, flat-out rejection, or worse by "dishonoring the family" in this manner.
Turn-of-the-century birth control (discusses sexual matters, obviously--and a couple horrifying procedures that could not have been very common)
Victorian sexual slang (WARNING: This site is chock-full of very dirty terms, as well as some (non-explicit) nude pictures. Please don't click if these things will alarm or disturb you.)
Homosexuality and Gender Non-Conformity
This gets its own section because I would love to see gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender characters in the Union...but it wasn't exactly easy to be LGBT at the turn of the century. Coming out publicly was virtually never an option; if you had even a couple of understanding friends or family members, you were incredibly lucky. For the most part, homosexuality and gender variance were so laden with cultural and religious stigma that they weren't even talked about. The word "gay" didn't exist in its modern sense; gay men were just homosexual, or worse, fairies or sodomites. The term "lesbian" did exist in its current sense, though "Sapphic love" was more common. Whatever you called it, romantic love or sexual activity between people of the same gender had to be kept under wraps. Cross-dressing and gender-variant behavior were equally frowned upon. So was there anywhere at all in turn-of-the-century New York that LGBT folks could just be themselves? As it happened, there were several places. This site gives an excellent general overview of these havens, the most famous of which was the notorious Bowery neighborhood.
Since the brief Wiki article doesn't do it justice, here's an excerpt from Grit, Graft and Grandeur by Eric Ferrara about the LGBT scene on the Bowery:
"As criminal as it sounds (and was), the Bowery was progressive for its time and has always seemed to stay one step ahead of the cultural curve. Circle Hermaphroditos, Golden Rule Pleasure Club, the Palm, Manilla Hall, Black Rabbit, Little Buck's and, most notably, Columbia Hall at 392 Bowery (better known as Paresis Hall) were just a few of the openly gay clubs, saloons, bathhouses and theaters in the district by 1892. Though perhaps the earliest (certainly the most prominent) gay districts in America, these establishments attracted revelers of every type. It became part of the 'Bowery experience' to mingle with 'fairies' and 'hermaphrodites.' For gay men (and some women), it was a rare opportunity in the nineteenth century to interact socially without much discrimination, other than the occasional drunk sailor; for tourists and partygoers, it was just another curious attraction. Either way, the powers that be sheltered the community and allowed it to thrive." (p. 42)
It should be noted that some of these establishments (including the Golden Rule Pleasure Club and the Black Rabbit) were actually in an area where the Bowery overlaps with Greenwich Village. Paresis Hall, however, was probably the most famous (or infamous) of them, and it was a Bowery dive through and through.
Crime and Vice
If you've explored this site a bit, you've probably already met Monk Eastman and the Eastman Gang, and their archrivals, Paul Kelly and the Five Points Gang. The Hudson Dusters in Greenwich Village were major players as well. All the information this site offers about these gangs is accurate to the best of my knowledge, and everyone's free to play around with them in stories and RP. (Just don't thumb your nose at history by killing them off or something.)
Of course, there were also many smaller gangs operating in the city--and here, I can't help but mention Corcoran's Roost. Thanks to a wacky Irishman named Jimmy Corcoran, this small section of Midtown, near the neighborhood of Turtle Bay, became an Irish shantytown whose residents were largely members of the Rag Gang. Founded and led by Jimmy himself under the alias of Paddy Corcoran, this gang of waterfront thieves operated mainly in the Roost and the Kips Bay area. They were known for their violence, their fierce loyalty (even taking the fall for each other in the courtroom), and their burning hatred for the police--in fact, it seems that they constantly went out of their way to tussle with their archenemies at the local station. In 1890, the New York Times speculated (with gleeful sarcasm) that the Rag Gang was going down. But in 1899, when Jimmy Corcoran was nearly eighty years old, his legacy clearly lived on, as evidenced by another lively Times article about a racist attack in the Roost and the ensuing battle between the unnamed gang and the local police. Here's one last article about Corcoran's death in 1900 and his colorful life.
Pickpockets and Street Rats (This is one of my favorite links on this whole page--especially since it talks a great deal about newsies who doubled as pickpockets! It's really a must-read if you want to make a pickpocket character.)
Prostitution (The major red-light districts at the time were the Bowery and the Tenderloin.)
Gambling: Being an ardent Racetrack fan, I've done quite a bit of research on this. There were many card and dice games played in Old New York. Poker and blackjack were always popular, and the newsboys were especially fond of a practice called pitching pennies. But the absolute favorite (illegal) passtime for newsies was the dice game craps. This page discusses their passion for it and the consequences if they were caught. When it came to public gambling halls, however, the most common game by far was stuss, a riskier version of an old English game called faro.
There were three types of gambling halls in New York at the turn of the century, all three specializing in stuss. They were the "splendid hells", which were fancy, upper-class venues for high-stakes games that the newsies could never afford; "skinning-houses", where the games were rigged so that the house dealer raked in all your money and left you broke, while doing his best to convince you that you were sure to win next time; and "wolf traps", where the customers dealt their own games. Wolf traps were the roughest joints--owned or frequented by gangs who would sometimes interrupt the night's games for a good brawl--but they were also the most honest, since cheating would get you a good beating or worse. According to The Bowery: A History of Graft, Grit and Grandeur by Eric Ferrara, "Local gangs went to war over control of the multimillion-dollar stuss enterprise in New York City, which was centered on the Lower East Side" (p. 63).
Finally, there was another form of gambling that was popular at the turn of the century--the kind that involved betting on animals. This ranged from cruel, bloody cockfights and dog fights to Racetrack's beloved horse races at the Sheepshead Bay Racetrack on Coney Island.
Politics and Current Events
Celebrities throughout the 20th century (includes the late 19th century as well)