Coffee and Cakes: Food and the Slow Death of the Antebellum Street Child | Manuel Herrero-Puertas

Coffee and Cakes: Junk Food and the Slow Death of the Antebellum Street Child

by Manuel Herrero-Puertas

Assistant Professor of Foreign Languages and Literatures
National Taiwan University 
Paper presented at the MLA 2022 Roundtable: The Biopolitics of Childhood
Washington DC, January 8, 2022
[Please do not circulate or cite without permission of the author.]

Junk food’s instant gratification introduced working-class children in antebellum United States to ideas of the good life that would slowly kill them. On the one hand, the dietary habits of newsboys, bootblacks, “street arabs,” or—as influential reformer Charles Loring Brace called them—“the dangerous classes” worried public authorities and commentators. In 1853, for example, an anonymous Putnam’s Monthly writer lamented how, in New York City, “[t]he worst effects of the eating-house system are upon the rising generation. The little people are taken out […] and fed on dainties at the brilliant restaurants, where their appetites are awfully vitiated, and they eat most alarming quantities of ice-creams and oysters” (367). Though oysters do not strike us today as junk food, the apprehension here rather follows from living in a society in which unsupervised children decide what and how much to eat. On the other hand, even if such a degree of license alarmed many, numerous writers and cultural producers exulted in the spectacle of entrepreneurial kids scrambling for their next meal.

 And a spectacle it was. Scenes of eating and socializing in dingy cafés and sixpenny eateries pervade accounts of urban childhood as diverse as Elizabeth Oakes Smith’s sentimental novel The Newsboy (1854), the rags-to-riches saga initiated by Horatio Alger Jr.’s Ragged Dick (1868), and explorations of seedy nightlife styled after George G. Foster’s New-York by Gas-Light (1850). Despite their obvious differences in genre and tone, these texts showcase paradigmatic street boys as nutritional catastrophes, indulging in black coffee, grid cakes, doughnuts, “sinkers,” and greasy beef. Street boys’ poor diet is never at odds with their survival to and occasional mastery of capitalism. Children pulling themselves up by their bootstraps in this context do so thanks to and despite of the availability of foods with low nutritional value. These children rarely morph into the “vicious infants” Laura Soderberg has recently located as active threats to U.S. nation-making during the nineteenth century. For Soderberg, juvenile delinquents, child prodigies, and nonwhite children configure a “host of antebellum children who were never imagined as the future of the nation; except as a future to be warned against and avoided” (5). On the contrary, fast-food children in antebellum New York City foreran industrial modernity’s labor cycles.

During the 1830s, New York and other urban centers proved that the United States was well in its way to becoming a fast-food nation—to nod at Eric Schlosser’s seminal study. Historian Cindy Lobel contrasts antebellum restaurants with eighteenth-century coffee houses. Whereas the latter favored enlightened exchange and deliberation, “the short-order restaurant was not a place of easy sociability or of civic discourse, but rather of convenience and speed” (“Out to Eat” 200-1) Inside, “runners […] delivered the premade meals in a flash to diners who quickly bolted them down, paid their bill and left, usually within thirty minutes of their arrival” (Urban Appetites 113). An accelerated pace of ingestion and digestion mirrored large-scale transformations such as the Erie Canal opening in 1825, which resulted in a wider range of foodstuffs circulating the nation more quickly and expansively, transcending local markets and flooding major cities instead. 

New food commodities and protocols for eating in public forestalled hunger while taking a toll on the population. According to Gergely Baics, improved foodstuffs’ supply chains as well as the rise of sixpenny restaurants during the 1830s evince New York City’s overall “transition from a tightly regulated public market system of provisioning in the Early Republic to a free-market model in the antebellum period” (1). Baics alludes to how the three decades prior to the Civil War in America were characterized by a combination of rapid economic growth and rising per capita income on the one hand, and worsening biological standards of living, in particular, declining physical stature and soaring mortality, on the other […] declining nutritional standards [and a] widely observed decline in adult physical stature (11).

Children from the lower classes, forced to eke out a living without municipal or state protections, were at the centre of this deregulation process. Access to cheap, satiating—yet unwholesome—food increased the street boy’s sense of self-reliance and freedom. As Alger Jr. pontificated, “the young vagabond of the streets, though his food is uncertain, and his bed may be any old wagon or barrel that he is lucky enough to find unoccupied when night sets in, gets so attached to his precarious but independent mode of life, that he feels discontented in any other” (83-84). 

While it is tempting to interpret Alger Jr.’s and similar scenes as celebrations of children’s pluckiness in the face of structural inequality and exploitative labor, I propose a biopolitical reading of the subjection mechanisms behind scenes in which junk food keeps starvation at bay while perpetuating social immobility and precarious health. When Brace addresses the working-class child of New York City, he posits coffee and cakes as both sustenance and aspiration: “Money is everything to you. With money […] you can call for your ‘coffee and cakes,” instead of standing with hungry eyes at the doors of eating houses” (156). Brace fails to imagine a more wholesome meal as the endpoint of a journey that begins and ends with the same dish eaten in the same place in the company of the same social class. Foster’s semblance of Mark Maguire, “King of the Newsboys,” exemplifies this food-operated impasse. Despite his alleged rise from the rank and file of the newsboys to “speculator” and potential “alderman,” Maguire remains a regular at Butter-cake Dick’s (115). A substantial body of work on the historical realities and cultural valences of nineteenth-century street children, carried out by Karen Sánchez-Eppler and, more recently, Soderberg among others, confirms that street children’s food-consumption habits partook of a duplicitous dynamic in which what did not kill them left them stuck in an unhealthy limbo. 

Such is the work of “slow death,” which Lauren Berlant locates in a neoliberal present in which “life building and the attrition of human life are indistinguishable” (96). For Berlant, the hype about the so-called “obesity pandemic” conceals a failure of sovereignty, both in terms of the concept’s explanatory applicability to our historical moment and of the alleged sovereign subject, whose easy access to life-sustaining meals masquerades as agency. Public-health, environmental, and societal problems caused by the popularization of junk food rather “occup[y] the temporalities of the endemic” (Berlant 97). Berlant leans on the recursive, non-traumatic consumption of junk food to update notions of biopower through the concept of “crisis ordinariness,” understood as a “process embedded in the ordinary that unfolds in stories about navigating what’s overwhelming” (10).

A close look at the literature of the antebellum street boy reveals a degree of continuity and exhaustion whose simultaneity feels nothing short of overwhelming. In his childhood memoir A Voice from the Newsboys (1860), John Morrow highlights the imbrication of survival and erosion that kept him inside the work-eat hamster wheel:

By nine o’clock, the newsboy’s morning sales are finished; if we still follow him—it will be into the coffee and cake saloon, where he takes a seat, and waits patiently for his breakfast. Meanwhile he muses as follows; ‘I had fifty-six papers for my morning’s stock, for which I paid eighty-four cents. For the sale of these I have received one dollar and twelve cents, leaving me a profit of twenty-eight cents; nine of these I am going to spend for my breakfast, and I shall then have nineteen to spare. […] Just at this moment, his thoughts are diverted from this practical channel, by the appearance of his breakfast, consisting of a cup of coffee and six griddle-cakes. All his energies are now directed to the consumption of what is set before him, which he eats with a right good will, asking no questions for conscience sake (129).

Eating and the suspension of critical self-awareness unfold as one and the same thing. The budgetary calculations that precede the joyous moment of satiation accentuate fast food’s narcotic effect. Numbers and figures dissipate in the act of “consumption” they have made possible. The economic disenfranchisement of the newsboy thus becomes unconscious, laterally displaced by breakfast food: the coffee that will keep the newsboy alert yet docile.

In such a scenario, proper nourishment becomes a luxury. Seba Smith’s 1842 short story “Billy Snub, the Newsboy,” reinforces the recursive nature of newsboy’s labor, only occasionally fueled by seasonal vitamins:

[D]ay after day, and week after week, Billy successfully followed his new profession of newsboy, working hard and faring hard, in season and out of season, early and late, rain or shine […] His food was of the coarsest and cheapest kind, bread and cheese, and potatoes and fish, and sometimes, when he had done a good day’s work, he would treat himself to an apple or two, or some other fruit that happened to be in season (179).

Apples matter. Brace, who had opened a “Coffee and Reading Room” for boys in the city’s most dangerous district (291), decried stealing an apple as the ultimate gateway crime for children: “Another boy is going along the street, and passing a stall, he sees some nice apples. No one is watching him, and he slips his hand slily into the heap and drops one into his pocket […] his character ruined in the very beginning of his life; and because of that one little theft of the apple” (170-71). But perhaps the stolen apple testifies to the street boy’s “not loving it.” Old-Testament echoes notwithstanding, the passage calls for the kind of analysis that would recast this petty crime as a counter-agency unsettling the biopolitical apparatus of slow death. 

Works Cited

Alger Jr., Horatio. Ragged Dick: Or, Street Life in New York with the Boot Blacks. 1867. Signet, 2014.

Baics, Gergely. Feeding Gotham: The Political Economy and Geography of Food in New York, 1790-1860. Princeton UP, 2016.

Berlant, Lauren. Cruel Optimism. Duke UP, 2011.

Lobel, Cindy R. “‘Out to Eat’: The Emergence and Evolution of the Restaurant in Nineteenth-Century New York City.” Winterthur Portfolio, vol. 44, no. 2/3, Summer/Autumn 2010, pp. 193-220.

—. Urban Appetites: Food and Culture in Nineteenth-Century New York. U of Chicago P, 2014.

Morrow, John. A Voice from the Newsboys. A.S. Barnes & Burr, 1860.

Sánchez-Eppler, Karen. Dependent States: The Child’s Part in Nineteenth-Century American Culture. U of Chicago P, 2005.

Schlosser, Eric. Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. Mariner, 2012.

Smith, Elizabeth Oakes. The Newsboy. Derby and Jackson, 1854.

Soderberg, Laura. Vicious Infants: Dangerous Childhoods in Antebellum U.S. Literature. U of Massachusetts P, 2021. 


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