Street Arabs and Street Urchins

An alarming 1849 report by New York City police chief George Matsell raised the specter of over ten thousand "vagrant, idle and vicious children of both sexes" roaming the city streets, begging, stealing, or making their way as prostitutes. That same year, British journalist and social critic Henry Mayhew lamented the "licentious and vagabond propensities" of the thousands of children "flung" into London's streets through neglect and destitution. While Mayhew and other social observers illuminated the hardships and squalor that characterized the lives of street arabs and street urchins–the legions of raggedly dressed children, girls as well as boys, who worked, played, and sometimes lived in the streets of urban slums–their view of street children was framed as much by their own middle-class attitudes toward the poor as by the actual conditions of the children. Urban dwellers throughout the United States and Western Europe faced a bewildering array of social changes during the Victorian era that gave rise to fears of social chaos and violent class confrontation. Considering poor children to be "endangered and dangerous youth," urban reformers came to see these children as both the symbol of social disintegration and the key to social stability.

During the nineteenth century, urban centers such as New York City received a steady stream of foreign immigrants, unskilled native-born workers, and free blacks who, by economic necessity, settled in the poorest, most densely populated wards of the city. Although social reformers and the press publicized only the most sensational stories of children who ran away from or toiled to support alcoholic, abusive parents, the vast majority of children worked to supplement their families' meager incomes. Children scavenged for coal and scrap wood to burn, ran errands, and gathered scrap metal, glass, and rags to sell to junk dealers. Boys blacked boots and sold newspapers and matches. Girls peddled corn or flowers on street corners. The growth of street trades also led to an increase in the amount of petty crime committed by juveniles. Many children became adept at pilfering salable objects, though pickpocketing was the preserve of a small cadre of young professionals.

Police cited vagrancy, however, as the principal "crime" committed by the young, though most had homes and jobs that required their presence in the streets. The emphasis on children's "vagrancy" reflects middle-class biases about what constituted a home. In the eyes of many middle-class observers, the poor had no homes, merely dark, filthy hovels. In fact, the term street arab, first used in the mid-nineteenth century, alludes to the nomadic lifestyle of some Arabic peoples. More than any other issue, the presence of children in the streets symbolized the disorder of lower-class family life to social reformers. In poor families, home life spilled out of the crowded tenement rooms into the bustling streets below. By contrast, domesticity defined the experience of bourgeois families. Instead of keeping children within the domestic sphere to protect them from the perceived evils of urban life, lower-class parents allowed their offspring to work and play in the city streets.

Fueled by these beliefs, organizations for the moral reform of destitute and delinquent youth emerged on both sides of the Atlantic: Rauhe Haus in Germany, Colonie Agricole in France, Kingswood and Tower Hill in England, and the Houses of Refuge in the United States. These reformatories sought to remold children's characters through discipline and hard work. Other organizations, notably the Children's Aid Society and the SOCIETY FOR THE PREVENTION OF CRUELTY TO CHILDREN, took a different tack, intervening in the home life of the poor. They rescued children not only from the streets, but, when they deemed it necessary, from their parents as well. Modern conceptions of foster care and children's services evolved directly from these programs.

See also: Child Saving; Delinquency; Homeless Children and Runaways in the United States; New York Children's Aid Society; Work and Poverty.


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