Posts Tagged ‘bootblacks’

New York’s painter of “cheery street urchins”

October 10, 2016

When John George Brown immigrated from England to New York in 1853, he was a struggling portrait painter making a living as a glass cutter.

[“The Gang,” 1894]


Brown made his way to Brooklyn, where he was hired by the Flint Glass Company on Broadway.

With money from his day job, he signed on for night classes at the Graham Art School (a precursor of the Brooklyn Museum on Washington Street) and Manhattan’s National Academy of Design.

[“Delivery Boy,” 1863]


He impressed one of Flint’s owners with his talent, and after marrying the owner’s daughter and securing his father-in-law’s financial backing (as well as support from a few art dealers), he set up a studio at the Tenth Street Studio Building in Greenwich Village and began painting street kids.

[“Bootblack,” 1866]


This was the second half of the 19th century, and in the rapidly growing cities of Brooklyn and New York, these “street Arabs,” as they were sometimes known, weren’t hard to find.

The Children’s Aid Society, formed in 1853, estimated that about 3,000 kids lived on city streets, scratching a living as newsboys, bootblacks, vendors, and criminals.

[“The Flower Girl,” 1887]


As the urban population exploded in the Gilded Age, so did the population of orphans, half-orphans, and runaways, their numbers estimated in the tens of thousands.

This was a societal problem that certainly didn’t go unnoticed, with benevolence organizations building homes for working kids and successfully urging legislators to pass mandatory school and child labor laws.

[“Extra!” 1889]


What distinguishes Brown’s depictions of street kids is the rosy, romanticized glow he gave his subjects, which was so at odds with the harsh lives homeless children led.

[“The Sidewalk Dance,” 1894]


And despite the work of social reformers such as Henry Loring Brace (founder of the Children’s Aid Society) and Jacob Riis, who documented street kids in How the Other Half Lives in 1890, Brown’s “cheery street urchins,” as one biographer put it, were a big hit with the public.

brownselfportrait1908His name may not be well-known to art patrons and sellers today.

Yet his paintings and lithographs—including scenes of the city’s adults at work and play, from grimy longshoreman taking a midday break to more refined people enjoying the sport of “curling” on a lake in Central Park—hang in impressive museums like the Corcoran Gallery and are still in demand.

An engraving of “The Sidewalk Dance” just sold at auction for $468.

[Left: “Self-Portrait,” 1908]

A home for orphan newsboys and bootblacks

December 11, 2008

In the late 19th century, thousands of kids lived on the streets of New York, many supporting themselves by selling newspapers, shining shoes, and doing other odd jobs—not all of them legal.

streetvagrant A tough life for a homeless little dude in the 1880s











It was a pretty dicey existence, so to help them survive, the newly formed Children’s Aid Society put up several privately financed lodging houses. Here, homeless boys and girls could get a hot meal and a warm bed, not to mention attend school, go to prayer sessions, and learn a trade.











This Victorian Gothic/Queen Anne building is the third lodging house the Society opened, called the Tompkins Square Lodging House for Boys and Industrial School. Constructed on Avenue B and 8th Street in 1886, it housed 71 boys, according to the 1870 census, most between 12 and 15.

The architect, Calvert Vaux, also designed Central Park. Vaux was committed to helping the poor and designed all of the Children’s Aid Society homes.


A lovely S next to the window commemorates Mrs. Robert L. Stuart, the benefactor of the home.

Over the years, about 170,000 street kids passed through all the different lodging houses. The Avenue B building didn’t house kids for long though. By 1910 it became a school only, and in 1925 was sold to a Jewish congregation. Vacant in the 1970s, it was turned into apartments in 1977, then landmarked in 2000.

An extensive history of the home and neighborhood can be found here.