March of the Mill Children
Children Marching in the Streets?
Children marching from state to state isn’t a common sight today, but in 1903, it was. Child labor laws were unbelievably lax in the early 20th century (and before!), especially in textile mills. In fact, the 1900 US census reported that 1 in 6 children under the age of sixteen was employed in some way, a figure that is often thought to have been severely underreported. You might be thinking that the conditions in the factories were extremely safe so that no harm came to our nation’s youth. Well, you’d be wrong again. Many kids suffered injuries during their employment, from missing fingers and toes, to more severe cases involving deaths. The hours were pretty cruel, too. There wasn’t a limit for work week hours, so factory owners had complete control over their employees.
Fighting the Odds
What made matters even worse, as if they weren’t terrible enough, was the fact that the child mill workers were horrendously underrepresented. If you tried to complain, you were fired. If you tried to get your story to the press, it wouldn’t get printed, as the mill owners had majority shares in the newspapers. It wasn’t until someone by the name of Mary Harris “Mother” Jones stepped up to advocate for young workers. What did she do to fight this oppression? She organized a march.
In the summer of 1903, Jones gathered support in New Jersey and Philadelphia by rallying some 50 kids from the mills in Kensington and proceeded to march on Oyster Bay, New York (the hometown of current president Theodore Roosevelt). How did the secretary of the president respond? They were outright rejected. Jones even sent a letter to the office of the president, to no effect. The children and Jones had the door closed on them, after campaigning in the heat of summer for basic human rights we take for granted today. It wasn’t until nearly forty years later when the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 abolished child labor in the US.
So what did Jones’s march on New York signify? Well, it brought a previously unknown problem to the table of the public. Here were children desperate for safe conditions and the chance to go to school, serving wealthy Americans whose businesses funded their own kids’ educations. The system was blatantly unfair, and toxic to child workers, who would either grow up emotionally or physically stunted, or did not get the chance to grow up at all.
Jones’s march was revolutionary for the time, and although it did not enact change until many years after the initial demonstration, the idea ignited a movement for child labor rights that was way ahead of its time.
Come check out our deck on the march of the mill children at FactSumo!