From the Blue Jersey Archives – Mother Jones: The March of the Mill Children through New Jersey to see Roosevelt

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Mother Jones

From the Blue Jersey archives, New Jersey labor history you might not know. Today 114 years ago Mother Jones set out from Philadelphia on a walk that made history. The destination was President Theodore Roosevelt’s Long Island home. The purpose, to advocate for child labor laws for minors working long hours and frequently maimed by machinery. Roosevelt’s staff turned her away, and the hundreds of workers marching with her, including working children. But before then, with most of the journey being through New Jersey, Mother Jones advocated for child labor law in huge rallies in Trenton, Princeton (to the home of President Grover Cleveland), New Brunswick, Elizabeth and Newark, among other stops. Also recommend this video, outstanding for the photos. This is labor history of Jersey that I only learned last year. – Rosi


On this day in history – July 7, 1903 – labor organizer Mary Harris “Mother” Jones led the March of the Mill Children, starting in Philadelphia and walking more than 100 miles. Destination: President Teddy Roosevelt’s Long Island summer home in Oyster Bay. The reason, to draw attention to the injuries happening to child laborers, who worked long hours under deplorable conditions.  It was a three-week journey, and most of it was through New Jersey.

The kickoff was in the Kensington neighborhood in northern Philadelphia in summer 1903 to support the largest strike in city history – tens of thousands of textile workers, many children and teenagers, who were demanding to reduce working hours to 55 (!) a week, and to ban night work for women and children. Jones,  was an Irish-born American schoolteacher and dressmaker who became a well-known, effective labor organizer. She helped coordinate major strikes and cofounded the Industrial Workers of the World – the IWW, nicknamed the Wobblies. Wherever Mother Jones went, there was organizing. And she knew how to generate attention. When she was told newspapers were ignoring child labor because mill owners were stockholders, she said “I’ve got stock in these little children, and I’ll arrange a little publicity.”

Children-Strikers-from-Spargo-1903At the time, more than 15% of children under 16 were employed – that’s an official census count; likely an undercount. It was poor families who had to send their children to work in coal mines and mills to help keep the family fed. But there were few regulations, and workers – particularly children – were treated as though expendable. They worked long hours in deplorable conditions with factory equipment that risked their lives and health; stunted growth, maiming injuries.

The kickoff in Philly was impressive. Fifes and drums, and a crowd to send them off. Destination: Teddy Roosevelt’s summer home to talk child labor. From Mother Jones’ autobiography:

“A great crowd gathered in the public square in front of the city hall. I put the little boys with their fingers off and hands crushed and maimed on a platform. I held up their mutilated hands and showed them to the crowd and made the statement that Philadelphia’s mansions were built on the broken bones, the quivering hearts and drooping heads of these children. That their little lives went out to make wealth for others. That neither state or city officials paid any attention to these wrongs. That they did not care that these children were to be the future citizens of the nation.”

They were fed and housed along the way by union people, by local farmers and socialists who knew their route. They came through Trenton, Princeton, and New Brunswick, then to manufacturing centers where they rallied sometimes with thousands of people in Elizabeth, Newark, Paterson, Passaic and Jersey City.

When they reached New York City, sixty remaining marchers walked up Second Avenue by torchlight. Jones, a tactician who knew how to attract a crowd, put the children in animal cages to dramatize the bosses’ attitudes toward their little workers. Just before they sought an audience with the president, Jones delivered a speech now known as The Wail of the Children to a rally audience in Coney Island, NY.

In late July, Mother Jones led a small delegation to President Roosevelt’s summer home to lobby him about working conditions. He refused to see them.  TR was known to tell working class women to have a lot of children, many of whom were worked at mills that made a considerable profit for their owners. But he turned away the children who walked three weeks to see him.

But one year later, the National Child Labor Committee formed. Pennsylvania, where the March began, toughened up child labor laws. But it took another 33 years – until another Roosevelt came got into the White House  – before standards were federalized: The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.

It might never have happened if Mother Jones and a ragtag bunch of kids, teenagers and grownups hadn’t walked across New Jersey to see a president. New Jersey history I didn’t know.

I always check This Week in History, put out daily by my friend Carl Bunin, who runs peacebuttons– a union outfit in Detroit that sells progressive stuff. I find a lot of Jersey history there.  

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