The Yellow Kid on the Paper Stage
Introduction Origins of the Kid Class Warfare on the Urban Stage Race and Ethnicity Selling the Kid The Death of the Kid
"General View of the Central Park, New York."
"The Central Park, New York, October 1860."
"The Drive in Central Park, New York, September 1860."
"Skating on the Ladies' Skating Pond in Central Park, New York."
"Hogan's Alley Folk Sailing Boats in Central Park."
"Hogan's Alley Folk Sailing Boats in Central Park."
"Hogan's Alley Folk Sailing Boats in Central Park."
Click on images above for a larger view, description, and source information.

Class Warfare on the Urban Stage


Illustration from Harper's MagazineRapid industrialization during the nineteenth century divided Americans more deeply by class,1 and the upper classes began separating themselves physically and culturally from the lower classes, especially in the city, where bourgeois attitudes flourished. This separation played out in the public spaces of the city; notably in theaters (of all kinds), concerts, parks—and even through language. The bourgeois class identity articulated itself by distancing itself from other classes linguistically during the 1880s and 1890s, when they began referring to their professions differently. Rather than a "merchant" or "iron manufacturer" men considered themselves a "business man" or "capitalist."2 One of the more notable examples of this new rigid class structure in New York City was the construction of Central Park by wealthy New Yorkers in an attempt to regain control of the impending urban immigrant populace. A group of wealthy merchants organized in 1850, seeing "not only a chance for capital accumulation through rising real estate prices, but also a way to create a space removed from the disorderly city."3 Specific upper and middle class visions of Central Park can be viewed by clicking on the images at left from Harper's Weekly.

Furthermore, many northeast cities had Sunday blue laws that prohibited sports activities in public spaces; the laws were seen as insulating against immigrant-congested cities regarded as centers of vice, crime, and corruption.4 Tammany's working-class immigrant constituents strongly opposed such blue laws: "Resentment built up against elite New Yorkers who played golf and tennis on Sundays at their resorts, while urban youth were being arrested for playing ball." But Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted and associates relied on regulations and policemen, called Park-Keepers, to enforce rules: no climbing trees, molesting birds, racing carriages, grazing animals, destroying plants, shooting firearms, no jugglers or gamblers, no puppets shows, peddlers of flowers, no ballad singers, no hand-organ men.5 Olmsted thought he was creating "a distinctly harmonizing and refining influence on upon the most unfortunate and most lawless classes of the city—an influence favorable to courtesy, self-control, and temperance."6 The working class did manage to profit somewhat from the Park's construction. After Olmsted was fired, Tammany milked the park for make-work projects for thousand of constituents at a cost of $8 million.7 Eventually the park was opened to sports, including ice skating by 1859-60, and ball-playing by the 1880s.8

"Hogan's Alley Folk Sailing Boats in Central Park.""Hogan's Alley Folk Sailing Boats in Central Park" shows the tension surrounding the Park that continued into June 1896, when the cartoon was published in the World and offers a scene that might be Frederick Law Olmsted's worst nightmare. A "captain" holds an uprooted sign saying "KEEP OFF THE GRASS" and two identical signs are carried on the other side of the pond in the background. Riis saw a similar protest in reality—children chalking a fence in a Mulberry Street yard wrote "Keeb of te Grass."9 Leisure time for the working class was not an option in a city where the public environment was so tightly controlled. In the Central Park cartoon, the kids take back the park and create their own high-class boating scene. The Yellow Kid bears a yachting cap to match many worn by other kids. The sailing boats are homemade, one of which bears a shirt as a sail. While one kid has fallen into the pool and is unhelpfully offered a box of lozenges, two others are in the process of falling in. One sailboat is made of a street sign. A flag bears a frothy beer and a discarded board says "dis is a star board," mocking the indecipherable nature of sailing terminology—or showing the children's ignorance. In the right corner a group of kids perform music; when we look closer you can see it's a Hogan's Alley Songster book "and other songs of the see." The comic manages to mock the habits of the rich, the habits of park-goers, and their attempts to contain or reform the residents of Hogan's Alley.
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1 Beckert, Sven. The Monied Metropolis: New York City and the Consolidation of the American Bourgeoisie, 1850-1896. Cambridge, U.K.; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. 237.

2 Beckert 256.

3 Beckert 50.

4 Riess, Steven A. "Sports and Machine Politics in New York City, 1870-1920." The Making of Urban America. Ed. by Raymond A. Mohl. Wilmington: SR Books (1984). 101.

5 Levine, Lawrence W. Highbrow Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America. Cambridge, MA/London: Harvard University Press, 1988. 186.

6 Levine 202.

7 Riess 101.

8 Riess 101.

9 Riis, Jacob A. How the Other Half Lives. New York: Penguin Books, 1997. 137.