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Philadelpian mill children march against child labor exploitation, 1903
According to the 1900 U.S. Census, at the turn of the century 26% of males and 10% of females between the ages of 10 and 15 were gainfully employed, for a total of approximately 1.75 million child laborers. In states like Alabama, the official percentage of male child labor was close to 60%. Moreover, a contemporary New York Times article reported that due to deliberate employer underestimation, the number of child workers was most likely between 2 and 3 million. As the children of the wealthy were receiving ever more education, with many, consequently, taking until twenty-six and twenty-eight to enter into their professions, the children of the working class were increasingly being sought as cheap labor for sweatshops. However, in accordance with the principles of laissez-faire capitalism and limited federal government, there were no national regulations on child labor.
In 1903, Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, a prominent socialist and labor organizer, traveled to Kensington, a neighborhood in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. At the time, between 75,000 and 125,000 textile workers were striking for better pay and a fifty-five-hour workweek. According to Mother Jones, at least ten thousand of the strikers were children.
Mother Jones was distraught by the condition of the children she met. Some were missing fingers and thumbs, others were missing entire hands, and many looked malnourished. Though state law prohibited children from working before the age of twelve, the law was poorly enforced and mothers routinely lied about the ages of their children because they were in desperate need of income and many had husbands who had been killed or maimed in the mines. According to these mothers, “it was a question of starvation or perjury.”
With more than 120,000 officially reported child laborers, most of whom were employed in coal mining or manufacturing, Pennsylvania employed the most children of any state in the nation. What’s more, at that time 1,161,524 children were officially enrolled in Pennsylvania schools, but average daily attendance was only 847,445, leaving 314,079 children unaccounted for. But Mother Jones knew where these children were, slaving at the mines and factories. Furthermore, one investigation reported that the average hours of labor for children in Pennsylvania was approximately eleven hours a day and sixty hours a week for compensation of about $2.50 a week (equivalent to the purchasing power of about $60 in 2010). Many children worked sixty-five hours a week, and in some towns, children were required to work as much as fifteen hours a day, from 6 am to 9 pm, with just a half hour for lunch and a half hour for dinner.
When Mother Jones inquired as to why the newspapers neglected to report the facts about child labor in Pennsylvania, she was informed that the employers of those children had stock in the newspapers. Her response, “Well, I’ve got stock in these little children and I’ll arrange a little publicity.”
On 7 July, the 65-year-old Mother Jones organized a group of nearly two hundred laborers, including dozens of juvenile mill workers, to march to New York in order to raise funds in support of the striking textile workers and bring attention to the injustices of child labor. Beginning with a rally at the City Hall in Philadelphia, she held up the mutilated hands of multiple children, declaring that “Philadelphia’s mansions were built on the broken bones, the quivering ears and drooping heads of these children…Some day the workers will take possession of you city hall, and, when we do, no child will be sacrificed on the altar of profit.” The rally, widely reported throughout the East, soon made child labor a national topic of discussion.
Carrying signs such as “We Only Ask For Justice,” “We Want to Go to School,” “More Schools, Less Hospitals” (a reference to hospital visits caused by unsafe working conditions), “We Want Time To Play,” the group then left Philadelphia for the ninety-two mile march to New York. Along the route, Mother Jones frequently stopped to visit union meetings, make speeches, and collect donations. On 9 July, she gave a speech at the Plumbers’ Union in Morrisville, Pennsylvania that was met with enthusiastic applause. The next day, the marchers crossed over the Delaware River and Mother Jones addressed 5,000 supporters in Trenton, New Jersey, raising $100.
The following day, her group marched to the Princeton residence of former U.S. President Grover Cleveland, who was away that day. However, the caretaker of the residence provided Mother Jones’ “army” with shelter for the night. After visiting New Brunswick, the workers marched to Elizabeth, New Jersey where they were guests at the local Socialistic Party and Mother Jones addressed a rally of 3,000 people. Following two days of exceptional hospitality given by the workers of Elizabeth, Mother Jones’ workers continued on to Newark, where she delivered a speech to several hundred residents outside of the local court house.
On 23 July, Mother Jones’ “army” reached New York and announced her intention to march to Oyster Bay, the summer residence of then-President Theodore Roosevelt, to request an audience for her and three child laborers from Kensington. In a public letter that would receive no response, Mother Jones respectfully beseeched the President to advise her and her supporters on the best course to end child exploitation and realize the children’s right to attend school.
After the Police Commissioner initially refused her request to march in New York, Mother Jones promptly visited New York City Mayor Seth Low who, after some persuasion, allowed the group to proceed. The next day, she delivered a speech denouncing child labor to a crowd of about 1,500. A couple of days afterwards, she delivered another speech to 1,000 people at Coney Island comparing child labor to slavery and criticizing the oft repeated myth of limitless opportunity because, by her estimation, these children were clearly being denied a legitimate opportunity to succeed.
On 29 July, Mother Jones and three young boys traveled to Oyster Bay to speak with the President, but his secretary informed her that the President would only meet with those who had scheduled appointments and advised her to write to the President. She proceeded to write to the President, but was informed that, while he was supportive of efforts to prevent child labor, “under the constitution it is not at present seen how congress has power to act in such a matter. It would seem that the states alone at present have the power to deal with the subject.” Mother Jones replied, “It is very sad commentary on the President of our nation that the plea of suffering little children who walked 100 miles…should be turned down.” Ironically, the same day that Mother Jones and the three boys were denied an audience; President Roosevelt took his sons and nephews for a night of recreation camping out underneath the stars; ensuring that his own children enjoyed the leisure time that those young boys were pleading for.
Despite their failure to meet with the President and pass national legislation regulating child labor, Mother Jones would later acknowledge that the crusade had been successful in drawing the nation’s attention to the plight of child workers and launching a nationwide movement against child labor. The next year, 1904, leading Americans such as former President Grover Cleveland, Harvard President Charles Eliot, South Carolina Senator Benjamin Tillman, Columbia professor Felix Adler, and Hull House founder and future Nobel Peace Prize laureate Jane Addams, joined the newly formed National Child Labor Committee to campaign for reform. By 1915, Pennsylvania enacted a new child labor law setting the minimum age at fourteen, and the year after that the first federal child labor law was enacted prohibiting the movement of goods across stage lines if child labor laws were violated (though the law was declared unconstitutional by the courts).