Reading Horatio Alger, Jr. as History

A few years ago, when lowering government spending became a popular rallying cry, I kept waiting for someone to claim Horatio Alger as the patron of small government.

Horatio Alger, Jr. was a prolific writer who published about 100 books between 1868 and his death in 1899. Most were novels about poor boys who improved their lives through hard work, education, and lucky breaks. His earliest books often told of young orphans who lived on the streets of New York City and supported themselves by blacking boots or selling newspapers. The only time an authority figure paid any mind to the ragged urchins was when a policeman broke up a fight, or someone woke a boy to order him out of a doorway or wagon where he’d been sleeping.

It has been estimated that during the 1870s the number of homeless orphans in New York City fluctuated between 20,000 and 30,000. Those who sought help went to facilities run by private charities – notably the Newsboys’ Lodging House run by the Children’s Aid Society, which remained open under various names up through the 1940s. Night classes were available to boys motivated to receive an education.

(Up until the 1930s most government assistance was limited to almshouses, where conditions were purposely kept austere to discourage use of meager funds.)

Some politicians can view the past as evidence that more government help for at-risk children is needed; others may reference huge sums spent in modern times that resulted in few tangible improvements. The second group might suggest that private charity had a better outcome.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to write out a lecture on who should or shouldn’t be helping the poor. I want to remind my readers that tens of thousands of children once lived on the streets of U.S. cities, and that’s a truth worth knowing. There are many ways to learn about 19th century homeless youth, but I believe the most interesting method is by reading some of Horatio Alger, Jr.’s books. Though the details of the individual stories are fiction (and at times unlikely fiction) the streets and buildings, employment, dangers, and sources of help are real.

The author spent a great deal of time at the Newsboys’ Lodging House, meeting with the supervisor, as well as the boys who resided there. Alger investigated sources of corruption, and it is alleged that his life was endangered when he wrote of the padrone system, where Italian children were brought to this country and put to work as unpaid street musicians. That story is told in Phil the Fiddler.

Alger wrote several books a year, and all were handwritten, which made corrections difficult – at times he’d mention a detail he’d forgotten to include earlier. His writing can be wooden, and he followed the 19th century habit of occasionally stopping the action to give brief sermons on what his readers should learn from what just took place. Plus Alger wasn’t shy about tossing in coincidences to move the story along.

But despite their failings Horatio Alger, Jr.’s books are an interesting read. His main characters are likable, usually possessing a wry sense of humor. (When a tutor is looking for a good story to begin teaching a nearly-illiterate bootblack, the new student says “Find an easy one, with words of one story.”) Alger’s boys are hard-working, with a desire to improve themselves, and a willingness to break bad habits. The plots go along at a fast pace, and when an enemy reforms, and the hero steps up to offer friendship, it is a believable transition.

I recommend six books from two of Alger’s early series. Five of the books can be downloaded without cost from Project Gutenberg, at; the remaining one – Mark the Match Boy, can be obtained as an inexpensive ebook from various sources. All books can also be purchased in both new and used printed copies.

Three books – Ragged Dick (1868), Fame and Fortune (1868) and Mark the Match Boy (1869) tell of Richard Hunter, who spent six years living on the streets before resolving to become respectable and improve himself. He obtains a good suit of clothes, befriends a boy who teaches him to read and write, and saves a wealthy man’s son from drowning. That rescue leads to a better job, plus a financial reward, but Richard’s adventures continue, including being framed for a crime he didn’t commit, and becoming the temporary guardian of a young match seller. As Richard Hunter’s fortunes improve he remembers his former street friends, and is always willing to help those in need.

The second set of three books – Paul the Peddler (1871), Phil the Fiddler (1872), and Slow and Sure (1872) tell of Paul Hoffman, who works to support his widowed mother and lame younger brother. Paul goes from being a street peddler to the owner of a necktie stand, and then a store owner. Most of his story takes place after he literally ran into a wealthy businessman, who hires Mrs. Hoffman to sew him new shirts, and then becomes the family’s financial advisor. Paul only appears as a minor character in Phil the Fiddler, (where he helps a street musician escape his ruthless master) but in Slow and Sure Paul’s adventures continue, and the Hoffmans lives improve through hard work, bravery, and a healthy dose of the author’s coincidences.

Horatio Alger, Jr.’s early novels tell of a time when widows and orphans overcame difficulties by their own efforts, and the help of friends. They aren’t great books, but won’t bore you, and you’ll learn a side of history that’s worth knowing about.