March of the Mill Children

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March of the Mill Children

United States 1903


Mother Jones was a well-known labor firebrand and orator who, by 1903, had been increasingly concerned about the plight of working children. Child labor was rampant through many industries, including textiles and mining. Conditions were horrendous; many children were maimed, crippled, and killed yearly in accidents. Perhaps Jones's interest was motivated by her own background as a teacher or by her personal concern as a mother. Regardless, the abolition of child labor remained an important issue to her throughout her lifetime.

A powerful orator, Jones was called upon to speak at a Kensington, Pennsylvania, rally of more than 75,000 striking textile workers. Inspired by the numerous children among the workers, Jones decided to hold a march to raise awareness of child labor. She led nearly 400 children and adults through Pennsylvania and New Jersey to New York City. Although the march attracted media attention and some local support along the way, she encountered resistance to her requests to enter New York City and did not gain access to the president. Nonetheless, the Pennsylvania legislature passed laws the following year that limited child labor.


  • 1883: Foundation of the League of Struggle for the Emancipation of Labor by Marxist political philosopher Georgi Valentinovich Plekhanov marks the formal start of Russia's labor movement. Change still lies far in the future for Russia, however: tellingly, Plekhanov launches the movement in Switzerland.
  • 1893: Henry Ford builds his first automobile.
  • 1899: The Second Anglo-Boer War, often known simply as the Boer War, begins.
  • 1903: Anti-Jewish pogroms break out in Russia.
  • 1903: Henry Ford establishes the Ford Motor Company.
  • 1903: Russia's Social Democratic Party splits into two factions: the moderate Mensheviks and the hard-line Bolsheviks. Despite their names, which in Russian mean "minority" and "majority," respectively, Mensheviks actually outnumber Bolsheviks.
  • 1903: Polish-born French chemist Marie Curie becomes the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize.
  • 1903: One of the earliest motion pictures, The Great Train Robbery, premieres.
  • 1903: United States assumes control over the Panama Canal Zone, which it will retain until 1979.
  • 1903: Wright brothers make their first flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Though balloons date back to the eighteenth century and gliders to the nineteenth, Orville Wright's twelve seconds aloft on 17 December mark the birth of practical human flight.
  • 1906: The British Labour Party is founded.
  • 1913: Two incidents illustrate the increasingly controversial nature of the arts in the new century. Visitors to the 17 February Armory Show in New York City are scandalized by such works as Marcel Duchamp's cubist Nude Descending a Staircase, which elicits vehement criticism, and theatergoers at the 29 May debut of Igor Stravinksy's ballet Le Sacré du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) are so horrified by the new work that a riot ensues.

Event and Its Context

Although Pennsylvania law prohibited children under the age of 13 from working, many children were compelled to work to help their families rather than attend school. Other states had child labor laws, but enforcement was not consistent and comprehensive protections were few. States were not effective in passing legislation even when child labor laws were suggested. No federal legislation existed.

Jones noted in her autobiography, "The [child labor] law was poorly enforced and the mothers of these children often swore falsely as to their children's age. In a single block in Kensington, 14 women, mothers of 22 children all under 12, explained it was a question of starvation or perjury. That the fathers had been killed or maimed at the mines."

Mill owners reaped financial benefit from this practice. They were apathetic because it was cheaper to employ children. Typical practice was to hire an entire family. Young children could also work faster and often better at tasks such as crawling beneath looms to lubricate machinery or spooling thread. Children often worked more than 60 hours a week for about $2.50. When children were maimed or killed on the job, there were always others willing to take their places.

Child labor was used in various industries throughout the United States, including paper mills, bottling plants, glass factories, and garment sweatshops. Children sold newspapers or worked in seafood processing plants, shucking oysters and peeling shrimp. Ironically, the majority of working children are reported to have wanted to go to work rather than suffer through school. Earning money gave them some measure of independence. Reformers interviewed one child who said he preferred work to being hit in school.

Mother Jones capitalized on a Philadelphia area textile strike to stage a child labor protest. She had been brought in as a speaker during the strike's third week. She arrived on 14 June 1903 in Kensington, where most of the 75,000 striking workers lived or worked. Mother Jones decided the time was right to organize the children. Of the strikers, an estimated 10,000 were children, most under 10.

Mother Jones took up the cause of the injustices of child labor and spoke out at various venues in and around Philadelphia in support of the strikers and especially the children, but it seemed none of the mill owners, wealthy area residents, or newspapers—those people who could change conditions by virtue of their standing in the community or access to the media—were taking notice.

On the morning of 7 July at a strike meeting, Mother Jones announced plans to organize a march from Philadelphia to New York to draw attention to this matter. She told the strikers of her intent to gather at least 400 children and the same number of adults to help care for the children. Her goal was tripartite: to draw attention to child labor problems, rally support for the textile strike, and shame the capitalists.

Parents were concerned about the trip. Mother Jones had planned to have the entire "army" on foot, but relented, saying the marchers could ride in supply wagons and take public transportation when available. Some parents remained concerned. Nevertheless, about 300 to 400 people, both adults and children, participated. An estimated half of them were under the age of 16. Charles Sweeney, a union leader, helped Jones with the event. The participants congregated, then left Kensington at about 1 P.M. that day. Sweeney led the group, carrying a baton. Children playing instruments and other marchers followed. Some carried signs with slogans such as, "We only ask for Justice" and "We want to go to school." Behind the throng, a fleet of eight supply wagons carried donated food and the marchers' meager gear.

The march is often called the "March of the Mill Children," but others participated in addition to the children who were working in the mills. Many of those marching were mining children. Mother Jones had toured mines and factories and had seen first-hand the dangerous conditions that caused industrial accidents. Many of children on the march had been maimed or crippled by such accidents.

As Mother Jones had hoped, the media took interest in the march. Journalists traveled with the group. There are conflicting reports about the numbers of boys and girls, total participants, and how many completed the march. The marchers spent the first night at Torresdale Park on the outskirts of Philadelphia. The weather was unusually hot and had exacted a toll on the marchers by the time they reached Trenton, New Jersey. Many became exhausted or ill and were sent home. Some marchers behaved badly: children who were caught chasing a farmer's chickens were shipped back home. Mother Jones had to maintain decorum as the success of the march depended largely on the kindness of those along its route; the strike council had been unable to fund the march.

By 10 July the group was massed at Monument Park, a Trenton, New Jersey, park near the Delaware River. Mother Jones drew a crowd of 5,000 to hear her describe in vivid detail the conditions in which the children worked. Local citizens took up a collection and helped by providing hotel rooms and food.

An advance team arranged the civic receptions en route. Farmers donated produce and grocers provided foodstuffs to sustain the group. Even a caretaker at the estate of former president Grover Cleveland opened the barns to the children on a stormy night. Finding food was rarely a problem, but finding a direct route was becoming difficult, as some towns did not want the marchers coming through town. They were greeted enthusiastically in New Jersey cities including New Brunswick, Elizabeth, Newark, and Paterson.

As the march neared New York City, Mother Jones had an idea. Rather than a rally and pageant at Madison Square Garden, why not see the president? The ultimate destination was changed to the summer home of President Theodore Roosevelt in Oyster Bay, New York. "I decided to go with the children to see President Roosevelt to ask him to have Congress pass a law prohibiting the exploitation of childhood," she wrote. Jones was intent on getting Roosevelt's attention and federal legislation. She sent newspapers a series of open letters detailing the problems children faced in the workplace, which were published. Rumor abounded as to how Roosevelt would respond. Mother Jones was sure Roosevelt would meet with them. "We will approach the President as respectable people and feel sure that we will receive civil treatment."

The march reached New York City on 22 July. Local officials did not want the march in the city, and police commissioner refused to allow the marchers to enter the city. Outraged, Jones went to see New York City Mayor Seth Low. "The mayor was most courteous but he said he would have to support the police commissioner. I asked him what the reason was for refusing us entrance to the city and he said that we were not citizens of New York." Mother Jones pointed out to the mayor several instances in which foreign dignitaries were entertained at city expense. She swayed Low with the argument that the marchers were United States citizens and contributors to the gross national product and were therefore entitled to march through the city. Low relented. A police cordon accompanied the group to their rally destination on Twentieth Street, rather than Madison Square Garden.

The next day the marchers toured Coney Island, and Mother Jones gave a speech. Ultimately, she was unable to convince Roosevelt to meet with her. Despite this setback, Jones stated, "Our march had done its work. We had drawn the attention of the nation to the crime of child labor." Members of the Pennsylvania legislature took heed and in 1904 enacted laws restricting child labor. Jones continued to advocate the abolition of child labor throughout her life.

Key Players

Jones, Mary Harris "Mother" (ca. 1830-1930): Jones was born in Cork, Ireland but her precise birth year is not known. Some estimate that she "fudged" her age by as much as 15 years. Displaced by the potato famine, her family settled in Canada, where she worked as a teacher and dressmaker. After marrying an ironworker, she moved to Memphis. She lost her entire family—husband and four children—in the 1867 yellow fever epidemic. In 1871, after years of personal tragedy, she immersed herself in the labor movement. She gained a reputation as a hell-raising militant and was best known for her work supporting miners. Jones organized the week-long children's march in 1903 to draw attention to the need for laws to protect children.

Low, Seth (1850-1916): Born in New York, Low began his career as a merchant in Brooklyn. He became interested in civic affairs and politics beginning in 1878. Soon after, he became involved in the Young Republican Club and ran for mayor of Brooklyn in 1883; he won that term and a subsequent term. He was named president of Columbia College in 1889 after retiring from business. Low continued to be active in civic matters, including mediating labor disputes. In 1901 he was elected as mayor of greater New York. Low was mayor at the time of the children's march.

Roosevelt, Theodore (1858-1919): A descendant of one of the first families of New York, Roosevelt was a charismatic career politician. He was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1881. He was also New York police commissioner and assistant secretary of the navy. He resigned from the latter post to organize the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry, commonly known as the Rough Riders, during the Spanish-American War. He continued in office as governor of New York and vice president under William McKinley. With the assassination of McKinley in September 1901, Roosevelt ascended to the presidency. He refused to meet with Jones and the marchers.

See also: National Child Labor Committee.



Currie, Stephen. We Have Marched Together: The Working Children's Crusade. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Publications Company, 1997.

Parton, Mary Field, ed. Autobiography of Mother Jones.Charles Kerr, 1925.


Knebel, Jessica. Illinois Periodicals Online. "Mary Harris Jones, Labor's Advocate." Illinois History. December 1997 [cited 1 October 2002]. <>.

Additional Resources


Steel, Edward, ed. The Correspondence of Mother Jones.Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985.

Werstein, Irving. Labor's Defiant Lady: The Story of Mother Jones. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1969.

—Linda Dailey Paulson