The barely adolescent newsboy – with his peaked and pillowed ‘newsboy cap’ and heavy, oversized ‘newsboy bag’ – was one of the iconic figures of the American street scene in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the shrill cry of ‘Extra! Extra!’ was the insistent litany associated with every homeward-bound commute.
In New York, at the time of the famous Newsboy Strike of 1899, at least five thousand newsboys plied the city streets and avenues. Although they provided a vital service – circulating news in what was then the world’s largest democracy – the boys were often considered to be little better than vagrants
The newsboy’s scruffy canvas bag was a vital tool of his trade, as vital, indeed, as his unpolished hobnailed boots. Little more than a capacious canvas envelope, with a long, strong strap and a flap to keep out rain, it was issued by the newspapers and bore the newspaper name printed prominently on the side.
By the post-war years, child labor-laws and rising prosperity had brought about the demise of the downtown newsboy, but the newsboy bag lives on – in the waterproof variant used by the enterprising teenagers on suburban paper routes and in the scruffy, ink-stained bags favored by university students. The messenger bag, of course, is a another of the newsboy bag’s contemporary cousins.