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Street Arabs: 1888

Street Arabs: 1888

New York circa 1888. "Street Arabs in 'sleeping quarters'." Photo by the Danish-American social reformer Jacob Riis (1849-1914). View full size.


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Baltimore once had itinerant street merchants, most with horse and wagon, whom the locals called A-Rabs. They did everything from sell produce to collect rags and scrap, but the term was pronounced with a long A.

No doubt an adaptation of the term used in this photo, though I can only guess at the etymology … perhaps the crowds of mendicant children one could observe in the cities of North Africa in former days?

[They're "Arabs" because they're nomadic, wandering from place to place. - Dave]

Longfellow The Day Is Done

And the night shall be filled with music,
And the cares, that infest the day,
Shall fold their tents, like the Arabs,
And as silently steal away.

James Thurber's mother remembered it as "like the Airedales."

Two-way street

I wonder which way it went in popular lingo: From street arab to street urchin or vice-versa?

What's Real?

The clothes, holes and dirt don't look staged to me.

Look at the eyes

You can fall asleep in some of the weirdest places, and I certainly have, but looking at the eyelids, it looks like there is some tension in the forehead that suggests they're squeezing them shut for the picture. I also notice that their cheeks are filled out nicely, as if they're at least somehow getting enough to eat, their hands show evidence of work and dirt, and their hair looks combed. I'm guessing they're actually tenement residents whose parents send them out to beg/whatever.

Maybe the photographer took them out for a bite to eat afterwards. I hope he did.


The way these streets urchins survived was to sell newspapers, go through garbage, and even pick up dog feces. The latter was sold to local tanneries. I had a cousin who did this to survive. He became successful accountant.

Nomads Without the Camels

So Google tells me "Street Arab" is a now archaic way of saying homeless street kid. I had no idea. I bet there was story behind that term, when it was in use.

Forty wink-winks

Sure, those three young fellows really fell asleep like that. And there's some oceanfront property in Nebraska that you need to check out before it's all gone.

Forty wink-winks

Sure, those three young fellows really fell asleep like that. And there's some oceanfront property in Nebraska you need to check out before it's all gone.

I believe the young man is dreamig

Probably of a nice hot meal and a clean bed.

How the other half poses.

Poorly. The kid on the left is peeking. I'm sure of it.

Sleeping boys

Seems to me, that this picture is posed. Look at the smiling face of the left kid. But maybe I'm not right - maybe he's dreaming about warm, clean, cosy bed and pajamas?

The Gilded Age

Mr. Vanderbilt, Mr. Morgan, Mr. Rockefeller, Mr. Carnegie -- anyone?

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