Mother Jones and the Fight Against Child Labor in Kensington’s Textile Mills

Second Street, North From Cambria Street, 1898 (PhillyHistory.org)

Second Street, North From Cambria Street, 1898, with Kensington Labor Lyceum at right. (PhillyHistory.org)

“During the Philadelphia textile workers’ strike in 1903,” wrote reformer John Spargo in his 1916 book, The Bitter Cry of the Children, “I saw at least a score of children ranging from eight to ten years of who had been working in the mills prior to the strike. One little girl of nine I saw in the Kensington Labor Lyceum. She has been working for almost a year before the strike began, she said, and careful inquiry proved her story to be true.”

Spargo was trying to do something about the fact that, in the second half of the 19th century, urban industrialization had turned cities into giant child labor pools. American textile companies employed more than 80,000 children and Pennsylvania was among the worst offenders. As historian Walter Licht explains in Getting Work in Philadelphia, between 1860 and the end of the century the percentage of 14 year olds at work jumped from eight percent to more than 40 percent. In Philadelphia, the mills of Kensington were ground zero for child labor.

It hardly mattered that the employment of children less than twelve years of age had been illegal since the 1840s. State officials, mill owners, and parents all figured that 50,000 working children was simply an economic necessity. Even if it meant there’d be no education. Even if it meant the very lives of children were in danger. “Children who work in the dye rooms and print-shops of textile factories, and the color rooms of factories,” wrote Spargo, “are subject to contact with poisonous dyes, and the results are often terrible.”

“Progressive era reformers quickly singled out Pennsylvania as the worst offender,” writes historian Joseph M. Speakman.  As early as 1890, Florence Kelley noted that child labor in Pennsylvania, flourished “almost unchecked.” And Jane Addams pointed to Pennsylvania in 1905, noting “there were more children employed in manufacturing industries in the state than in all of the cotton states of the South.”

“The high point of publicity on the issue,” writes Licht, came in late 1906, when “more than 25,000 Philadelphians crowded into the city’s Horticultural Hall,” (on Broad Street adjacent to the Academy of Music) to see “’An Industrial Exhibit,’ which dramatized with shocking photographs the use and state of child labor in Philadelphia Industry.” Advocacy organizations were embarrassing Philadelphia, the city promoting itself as the “Workshop of the World,” with the equally well-earned and dubious title: “The Greatest Child Employing City.”

"Juvenile Textile Workers on Strike in Philadelphia," From John Spargo, The Bitter Cry of the Children, 1916 (Google eBook)

“Juvenile Textile Workers on Strike in Philadelphia,” in 1903. From John Spargo, The Bitter Cry of the Children, 1916 (Google Books).

But it took a special effort to move the issue child labor to the forefront, ahead of the other pressing concerns. In April 1903, wrote Philip Scranton, “all the unions in the textile industries of Philadelphia met in convention at the Kensington Labor Lyceum” and agreed that they would strike for better pay and a reduction from a 60-hour to a 55-hour workweek. Within a few months, more than 90,000 textile workers had walked off the job. Twenty-five percent of this striking workforce was less than 15 years of age.

Enter Mary Harris, aka Mother Jones, who once claimed: “I’m not a humanitarian. I’m a hell-raiser.”

Knowing full well that at least ten thousand of the textile strikers were children, Jones imagined the power of a spectacle: an army of children in protest. She quickly organized one in the center of Philadelphia.

“A great crowd gathered in the public square in front of the city hall,” wrote Mother Jones in her autobiography. “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.”

“The officials of the city hall were standing the open windows. I held the little ones of the mills high up above the heads of the crowd and pointed to their puny arms and legs and hollow chests. … I called upon the millionaire manufactures to cease their moral murders, and I cried to the officials in the open windows opposite, “Some day the workers will take possession of your city hall, and when we do, no child will be sacrificed on the altar of profit.”

“The officials quickly closed the windows, as they had closed their eyes and hearts.”

On July 7, 1903, Mother Jones and her sign-carrying “children’s army” embarked on a 92-mile March of the Mill Children, departing the physical and spiritual home of organized textile labor in Philadelphia: the Kensington Labor Lyceum at 2nd and Cambria Streets. Destination: the Long Island, New York vacation home of President Theodore Roosevelt. The trek would become famous, if it’s impact was delayed. Not until 1909 did the state raise the minimum age of employment to 14 and reduce the work week to 58 hours.

For more on Philadelphia’s Labor Lyceum Movement, see this post.

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