What's the most badass picture of you as a kid? Maybe that time you pretended to lift a truck that was having a tire changed. Or that other time your family ran into Mike Tyson on vacation and you pretended to knock him out. Both these instances ended in tears. But, more to the point, the keyword in all these photos is "pretended" -- something that the kids from before the invention of color photography didn't need to do to look like total badasses, as the following pictures prove.
Pop culture has taught us that "newsies" were charming fellows who happily yelled out headlines from street corners and burst into song and dance at the drop of a hat. It turns out that they were less like young Christian Bale's character in Newsies and more like adult Christian Bale's character in, well, everything else.
The reality is that children selling newspapers at the turn of the 20th century were tough little bastards -- they had to be, since they were often homeless, and selling papers was the only way they made enough money to eat. Newsies paid the newspaper distributors out of their own pockets and then resold the papers to make a whopping 26 cents a day. Still, 26 cents' worth of gruel and stale bread was way better than 0 cents' worth of starvation, so when a newspaper boy found a profitable corner, he fought off his rivals to hold it (presumably the newspaper strings doubled as whips).
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Most papers were bought out of sheer terror.
Also, it was common for the kids to work late hours, and some literally slept on their newspapers. The one thing the Disney musical got right is that newsies did go on strike on 1899 when the two major New York papers raised distribution prices, but there was far less singing and dancing in the streets than we were told. In fact, we've mentioned before how this group of half-starved homeless kids and their eye-patch-wearing leader, Kid Blink, took on Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst and won, bringing the entire city to a standstill in the process.
The New York Times
Headline: "NEWSIES ON STRIKE!" Sub-headline: "WAIT, SHIT."
What the hell, why did no one tell us there was a 1940s version of Red Dawn? That's not a movie still: It's an actual picture from back when "learning how to shoot down Nazis with a rifle" was seriously part of the school curriculum. And no, we don't mean pixelated Wolfenstein 3D Nazis like the ones you spent hours killing in high school -- we mean actual flesh and bone ones.
The Shoot-Hitler-in-the-Goddamn-Face team was a popular after-school activity.
You see, during World War II, the U.S. government didn't want a buncha flabby teens growing into flabby adults and joining up to fight Hitler, so in 1942 they established the Victory Corps in high schools around the country. Kids who joined the Victory Corps took a physical fitness class and volunteered in a wartime activity like collecting scrap metal (which the government pretended was to make tanks or whatever) or being instructed in how to save lives ... and how to end them. More specifically, with shooting.
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The hall monitor who walked around that corner never stopped shitting himself.
Yep, when they weren't doing jumping jacks and collecting tin foil, Victory Corps teens took a "war effort" class, like first aid or sharpshooting, which led to awesome clubs like the Roosevelt High Girls' Rifle Team. And, really, if you were a high school girl, what would you rather do: take a class in putting on bandages, or wield an M1903 Springfield? The latter, obvs.
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"This may be a bad time to tell you this, but I made out with your boyfriend at the drive-in Saturday night."
Aww, look at those little urchins playing with a floater by the beach, not a care in the world. Actually, they're not playing, and that's not anywhere near the beach: That's the middle of the fucking ocean. Those kids are taking part in a real navy-style exercise on one of the United Kingdom's children-only training ships. Flunking a test for these kids could seriously mean drowning, and even if they survived and graduated, it was off to war for many of them.
On the other hand, this is far cooler than our sixth grade class photo.
The training ships were created back in 1756 when England was about to throw down with France and merchant Jonas Hanway was worried that the navy would appropriate his seagoing crews for the war effort. His solution? Take poor kids, stick 'em on ships to train 'em up, and then send them off to fight in the Royal Navy while Hanway's sailors stayed on his commercial ships and continued to make him that sweet, sweet cash.
The kids started on the ships when they were around 11 years old and stayed until they graduated at 15 or 16. It actually wasn't a bad deal for them, since it got them out of the orphanages and poorhouses and taught them a trade they could use as adults ... that is, assuming they didn't drown. Yeah, being poor city kids, a whole lot of them never learned how to swim. But, hey, that's why they called it a training ship, right?
"A snazzy outfit and semen puns? I'm there!"
Behold the magnificent installations of the St. James' Park Open-Air School in London, one of the many educational establishments from a hundred years ago that intentionally exposed kids to the elements, all year long, due to a tragic misunderstanding of how medicine works. Before the discovery of antibiotics, doctors pretty much took their best guess and made shit up about how to cure disease. To treat tuberculosis, for example, the thinking was that plenty of fresh air, all the time, would fix those lungs right up. For kids, especially those in the inner city, this meant "no heating for you."
Naturally, this custom also found its way to the New World, because we couldn't let those Brits prove that they cared more about the children than us (and if we did so while saving on utility bills, even better) -- here's a school in Minnesota with a troubling lack of walls, made even more troubling by the fact that it's winter:
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Turns out kids behave a whole lot better when their butts are literally frozen to the seats.
Making matters worse, it was precisely the kids identified as being weak or sickly who were sent to the open-air schools, because apparently science hadn't quite made the connection between constant cold and the little brats getting even sicker than before.
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Pneumonia seemed a fair trade for tuberculosis, apparently.
They weren't completely heartless in the pursuit of fresh air, though: Parents could buy or make "sitting-out bags" to keep the kids warm(ish). Of course, like everything else in the olden days, these primitive Snuggies sound fairly miserable, being "made of a brown, pliable, hairy, felt-like cloth." So, yeah, we're not sure what's worse: doing math while warding off hypothermia or spending all day inside an early 20th century version of a hollowed-out Mr.Snuffleupagus.
No, that's not a Vietnam-era military training camp -- that's what playgrounds looked like in the early 1900s. Putting children on top of that flimsy structure may seem grossly irresponsible to you, but don't worry: It's close enough to the utility pole that if one of those kids falls, he could simply grab on to the power lines.
These early playgrounds were actually created to make the kids' lives less dangerous. In the 19th century, child labor laws had ruined the party for factories that employed young children, so cities like New York were suddenly full of idle little kids trying to amuse themselves with dead cats in alleyways or dead hobos in vacant lots. And so, to improve the almost completely crappy lives of children living in inner city tenements, social groups began to build public places specifically designed for kids to play in. Even Teddy Roosevelt backed the playground movement, writing, "City streets are unsatisfactory playgrounds for children because of the danger." (For once, "the danger" wasn't a code name for his mustache.)
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Presumably the slide ends in a pool of crocodiles.
Of course, being old-timey, what was considered a safe place for kids to play was wildly different from today. Take Hiram House, built in 1896 in Cleveland to offer social services to the poor. Rather than the quaint little playhouses of today, the Hiram House playground depicted at the top of this entry consisted of "makeshift wooden structures" -- please note how the kids were supposed to slide down on two separate wooden poles with absolutely no protection underneath. Apparently the pre-eminent philosophy in playground design back then was simply "Eh, just give them little shits something to climb."
Efforts to keep kids from getting high were about as successful then as now.
No, that's not a kid playing Civil War dress-up. That's little Johnny Clem, and he didn't exactly buy that outfit at Toys "R" Us: He actually wore it, or one like it, on a battlefield when he personally shot down a Confederate colonel (the records don't specify where, but judging by his height, we're guessing it was somewhere painful). How the hell is that possible outside of video games? Because, although the age for enlistment for drummer boys and such during the Civil War was officially 16, the enlistment officers were willing to look the other way and often let kids as young as 9 years old volunteer.
"You're about 54 between all of you combined, right? Yeah, good enough."
Drummer boys weren't just adorable mascots tucked safely back at camp, either. They were smack dab in the middle of battle because, lacking walkie-talkies, their drum calls told the troops important stuff like when to advance, start firing, and break for lunch. And, yep, they were sometimes targeted -- the opposing sides knew perfectly well that taking the drummer boy out meant eliminating the commander's communication with his troops, and unfortunately the drums didn't offer a whole lot of protection. In fact, it was because of the distressing number of casualties in this sector that the (not expertly enforced) 16-year-old minimum age rule was created ... in 1864, only a year before the war ended.
Besides Johnny Clem, the second most famous drummer boy is probably Robert Henry Hendershot, who was 10 when he joined up; at the ripe old age of 12, he supposedly captured a Rebel soldier during the Battle of Fredricksburg and was discharged after being wounded two days later in another battle.
The wound was tendinitis from playing too hard.
Hendershot was accused of being a fraud later in life, but Clem's awesomeness was confirmed by pretty much everyone who knew him. He saw action at Perryville, Murfreesboro, Kennesaw, and Atlanta, was wounded twice, and legend says that when an enemy colonel told him to surrender, Johnny said nothing and simply shot him with his cute little sawed-off musket. He was discharged from the Army as a sergeant ... at age 13.
Did you know that gun manufacturer Remington is responsible for your keyboard layout? In our latest podcast, hosts Michael Swaim and Jack O'Brien look at the bizarre origin stories that shaped the modern world. Go here to subscribe on iTunes or download it here. Getting your Cracked fix while driving has never been this unlikely to kill you.
Related Reading: Kids today can be pretty badass too. Check out this 13-year-old bullfighter and tell us you aren't impressed. Then check out this kid-focused revolver ad and appreciate just how fucking crazy our grandparents were. And have you heard about the Wonder Twins of Terrorism? If not, read this!