By Andrew Henderson

It was the spring of 1903 and Mary Harris “Mother” Jones was traveling to Pennsylvania to support 75,000 striking textile workers, 10,000 of which she estimated were children. 

Pennsylvania law prohibited children working before the age of 12, Jones, in her autobiography, recounted how “the law was poorly enforced and the mothers of these children often swore falsely as to their children’s age.”

For many mothers, Jones recounted, it was a question of “starvation or perjury.” Many of the fathers had been killed or maimed working in the coal mines leaving little source of income for a family, meaning everyone had to contribute even with the dangerous conditions. Of course, the mills presented their own dangers, especially for children. 

It was around this time the Liberty Bell was traveling around the country and crowds were gathering everywhere to see it, so Mother Jones had an idea.

“These little children were striking for some of the freedom that childhood ought to have, and I decided that the children and I would go on tour,” Jones wrote in her autobiography.

Traveling from Kensington, Pennsylvania, Jones marched with children and adult laborers to Oyster Bay in Long Island, New York, to request a meeting with President Theodore Roosevelt to ask him to have Congress pass a law prohibiting the exploitation of children. She banked on Roosevelt having sympathy for the children, thinking of his own when he saw them.

Who was Mother Jones?

Jones was a well-known figure everywhere she would go. There are several tales in her autobiography of her being threatened with imprisonment, of workers opening their homes to her and of porters getting her onto trains in the dead of night.

Photograph shows labor activist Mother Jones (1837-1930) who was attending the 1915 hearings of the federal Commission on Industrial Relations at the New York City Hall, New York City. (Source: Flickr Commons project, 2012)

In 1902, a West Virginia attorney referred to Jones in court as “the most dangerous woman in the country today.” 

It was in June 1897 after addressing a railway union convention that she began being addressed as “mother,” and the name stuck. She was bestowed the moniker of “mother” by presenting herself as the “mother of downtrodden people everywhere,” according to an article in a May/June 2001 issue of Mother Jones magazine.

This new role freed Jones, especially at a time when women were relegated to having quiet, homebound lives and certainly not being out in the streets speaking and protesting. 

Referred to as the “Johnny Appleseed of activists,” by Mother Jones, she quite literally roamed the country: unionizing coal miners, participating in strikes, agitating strikes and helping in any way she could.

A friend to laborers and unions and an enemy to the mine owners and capitalists, Mother Jones came into the fray at a time when labor sentiment was growing ever sourer.

March of the Mill Children

The genesis of the march can be traced to a modest start. Jones began with a rally in front of City Hall in Philadelphia.

Children were often injured in the mills, their fingers or hands crushed or maimed, and Jones held up the “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,” according to “The March of the Mill Children,” by Russell Smith.

An exact number of how many child and adult laborers marched with her was never given in her own autobiography or other academic literature. Some approximations place the number around 200 to 400 people, depending on the source, but Jones took to describing the group as her “army.”

While an exact number of children in the march is unknown, today we are able to better grasp the reach of child labor in the 20th century. According to a 2003 report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 1900 census counted 1.75 million individuals aged 10 to 15 as “gainful workers,” or employees who were consistently working. That was about 6 percent of the labor force.

In Pennsylvania specifically, in 1901, there were 1,161,524 children officially enrolled in Pennsylvania schools, according to “Crusade for Child Laborers: ‘Mother’ Jones and the March of the Mill Children,” by C. K. McFarland.

However, the average daily attendance of those in schools was only 847,445. In spite of the 1903 Pennsylvania law which prohibited the employment of children under 13, Mother Jones knew the other 314,079 children were at work in the mills and mines.

Girls running warping machines in Loray mill, Gastonia, N.C. Many boys and girls much younger. Boss carefully avoided them, and when I tried to get a photo which would include a mite of a boy working at a machine, he was quickly swept out of range. “He isn’t working here, just came in to help a little.” Location: Gastonia, North Carolina. (National Child Labor Committee Collection)

One of the goals of the march was not only to get the young children out of the mills but also to send them to school at an early age and give them “more time to play.”

Jones was cognizant, however, that such a march would be nothing without publicity. Before mobilizing her march, she asked “newspaper men” why they didn’t publish the facts about child labor in Pennsylvania. Their reply was they couldn’t, the mill owners had stock in the papers, she recalled in her autobiography.

“Well, I’ve got stock in these little children,” Jones said to them, “and I’ll arrange a little publicity.”

Archived clippings of the New York Times provides a detailed account of the march. The earliest coverage from the Times dates back to July 10, 1903. It details one of the earliest days of the march on July 9, which falls in line with when Smith said the march started out of Kensington.

As to why the Times would cover the march with multiple stories tailing the march all the way from Morrisville, Pennslyvania to Oyster Bay could likely be explained by the status Mother Jones had built up by herself at this point. She was well known wherever she went.

Another reason could be the changing news landscape occurring the same time Roosevelt was in office. George Juergens tells us in “News from the White House” a shift was occurring from personal journalism to “the newspaper as monolith,” things were changing in the scale and operation of the newsroom, more dailies were being launched, American literacy was increasing and “objectivity became all the more urgent.”

A New York Times story from July 29, 1903 announces the arrival of Mother Jones in Oyster Bay. Jones traveled from Pennsylvania to New York to meet with President Theodore Roosevelt. (NYT Archives)

The Times coverage makes a good resource to track the movements of the march from one day to the next. For example, a story written from Passaic, New Jersey, on July 20, 1903 said Jones and her army were due to arrive in New York the next day where they would travel onto Oyster Bay later in the week to see President Roosevelt.

Times archive clippings for coverage on the march date from July 10 to July 3o, 1903, with only a few days where either nothing with the march was occurring or it was not included in the Times archives.

Interestingly, the aim of Jones and her march did not start off specifically targeting the president. As McFarland writes, while in New Brunswick, someone in the marching group had mentioned traveling to Sagamore Hill, the president’s residence, in Oyster Bay. Jones went with the idea as she needed “a bold and dramatic plan that would attract financial support, that would keep the remaining marchers faithful to the cause, and that would provide national publicity.”

According to a Times report, a possible meeting with Roosevelt at Sagamore Hill was not on the radar of government officials who said, “neither ‘Mother’ Jones nor her ‘army’ would be received by the President unless arrangements were made in advance for the meeting.”

Jones wrote a letter to Roosevelt, which was published in the Trenton Weekly State Gazette on July 23, 1903:

Dear Sir-Being citizens of the United States of America, we, members of the textile industry, take the liberty of addressing this appeal to you. As chief executive of the United States, you are in a sense, our father and leader, and as such we look to you for advice and guidance. Perhaps the crime of child slavery has never been forcibly brought to your notice.

Yet, as father of us all, surely the smallest detail must be of interest to you. In Philadelphia, Pa., there are ninety thousand (90,000) textile workers who are on strike, asking for a reduction from sixty to fifty-five hours a week. With machinery, Mr. President, we believe that forty-eight hours is sufficient.

If the United States senate had passed the eight-hour bill, this strike might not have occurred. We also ask that the children be taken from the industrial prisons of this nation, and given their right of attending schools, that in years to come better citizens will be given to the republic.

These little children, raked by cruel toil beneath the iron wheels of greed, are starving in this country which you have declared is in the height of prosperity slaughtered, ten hours a day, every day in the week, every week in the month, every month in the year, that our manufacturing aristocracy may live to exploit more slaves as the years roll by.

We ask you, Mr. President, if our commercial greatness has not cost us too much by being built upon the quivering hearts of helpless children? We who know of these sufferings have taken up their cause and are now marching toward you in the hope that your tender heart will counsel with us to abolish this crime.

The manufacturers have threatened to starve these children and we seek to show that no child shall die of hunger at the will of any manufacturer in this fair land. The clergy, whose work this really is, are silent on the crime of ages, and so we appeal to you.

It is in the hope that the words of Christ will be more clearly understood by you when he said “Suffer little children to come unto me.” Our destination is New York City, and after that Oyster Bay. As your children, may we hope to have the pleasure of an audience? We only ask that you advise us as to the best course.

In Philadelphia alone thousands of persons will wait upon your answer, while throughout the land, wherever there is organized labor, the people will anxiously await an expression of your sentiments toward suffering childhood.

On behalf of these people, we beg that you will reply and let us know where we may expect an audience.

The reply should be addressed to Mother Jones’ Crusaders, en route according to the daily papers. We are very respectfully yours.

Mother Jones, Chairman

As McFarland notes, Roosevelt had not “troubled himself to acknowledge the receipt of her letter…” As the president would not take it upon himself to meet with Jones and her army, the task was given to Secretary to the President Benjamin F. Barnes.

On Aug. 1, Jones and three of her “factory boys” visited the executive offices at Sagamore Hill, still hopeful Roosevelt would receive them for a meeting, according to McFarland.

“It seemed to them that a brief meeting with the Chief Executive was a small request after marching through heat and dust and rain and wind for three long weeks.”

However, they ended up speaking only with Barnes, which Jones went on to characterize, according to the Trenton Times, as “a very sad commentary on the President of our nation that the plea of suffering little children who walked 100 miles . . . should be turned down.”


Did anything change?

The president turned down Jones and her army, and they began their march back to Pennsylvania.

She had planned for a huge children’s march on D.C. in the fall of 1904 — something more organized to draw the support of Roosevelt and Congress — but that march never happened. The “Johnny Appleseed of activists,” never stayed in one place for long and she soon found herself whisked away to another strike.

Did the White House ever have a formal response to Jones and her march? No, even after her public letter, Roosevelt and the White House did not issue a formal response to Jones, according to the Global Nonviolent Action Database.

Moreover, the press began to rally around Roosevelt and chide Jones for the march. According to “Mother Jones: Raising Cain and Consciousness” by Simon Cordery, newspapers such as the Times and the Chicago Daily Tribune began lobbing attacks at Jones.

An Aug. 6, 1903 column in the Tribune headlined “‘Mother’ Jones’ Fruitless Mission” said someone should have told Jones she “was going to the wrong place and the wrong person,” arguing that if Jones wanted to make actual change she should have marched to Pennsylvania legislators and not the president if she wished to get child labor laws on the books for only the state.

An excerpt from an Aug. 6, 1903 column in the Chicago Daily Tribune headlined “‘Mother’ Jones’ Fruitless Mission.” (ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Tribune)

The Tribune argued that child labor laws were a state issue and would be “quite another matter” for the president to intervene in the laws of Pennsylvania or any other state.

The Tribune also demonstrates a flawed understand of how Jones’ goal was to abolish child labor everywhere and not just Pennsylvania. As Cordery writes, “condemning child labor had been one of the recurring topics in Mother Jones’s speeches. She wove it in with seemingly unrelated subjects, such as her presentations to UMWA conventions about recruiting members and organizing strikes.”

However, while it was true Roosevelt refused to meet with Jones and her army, change still came about.

Not long after the march, the Pennsylvania Legislature passed a law which “sent thousands of children home from the mills, and kept thousands of others from entering the factory until they were fourteen years of age.”

In 1906, with Roosevelt still president, the first proposals for a federal law to prevent the exploitation of children were introduced to Congress. And, in 1904, the National Child Labor Committee was formed to promote the “rights, awareness, dignity, well-being and education of children and youth as they relate to work and working.” 

It is unclear whether the march had a direct effect on Roosevelt. Even prior to becoming president, Roosevelt had a strong record on labor legislation: as a member of the New York State Assembly he voted on a bill to restrict child labor and as governor of New York he signed bills making the eight-hour work day and prevailing wages effective.

After the march, Jones “generated an intense hatred of Theodore Roosevelt,” according to Cordery. Jones thought if Roosevelt would have brought an end to a coal strike in 1902 then he “could intervene to end child labor, a practice she perceived as an unambiguous evil.”

While the work of Mother Jones was not the sole impetus of these later actions, it’s evident she had a long-lasting impression on the labor movement and was among the first to bring attention to the the issues of child labor. 

(Listen to an audio excerpt from the autobiography of Mother Jones on the march of the mill children)