In the early twentieth century, child labor was a pervasive phenomenon. Few laws protected the children from the hazards of their workplace, or from the exploitation of the factory owners. The situation was especially appalling in the textile mills, where children worked near powerful machinery that left many of them severely injured and maimed.
In June of 1903, a strike began in the textile mills of Kensington. The Textile Workers Union had demanded that the work-week decrease from sixty to fifty-five hours, and that women and children be prohibited from working night hours in the city's 600 mills. At the time, the walkout was one of the largest strikes in American history, with over 90,000 workers walking off the job. More than 25 percent were under age 15.
Radical labor firebrand Mother Jones (a.k.a. Mary Harris; 1837-1930) was organizing coal miners in West Virginia at the time, but when she heard about the Kensington mill strike, she vowed to expose the crimes of child labor. After convincing strike leaders to prioritize the issues related to child labor, Mother Jones organized a children's march from Philadelphia to New York to protest working conditions and publicize the campaign. This was the nation's first juvenile workers' march.
Made up of roughly three hundred children and supporting workers, the "children's army" began marching on July 7, 1903. Mother Jones made frequent stops to give speeches and to show the public the effects of exploitation, as many of the children marching were permanently maimed, which provided real proof of the dangers of their employment. The 125-mile trek ended in New York by the end of the month.
Mother Jones and three young mill workers continued on to the summer mansion of President Teddy Roosevelt on Long Island, but were turned away with the shrug that there was nothing the President could do.
They returned to Philadelphia on August 17. While the march gained publicity for the plight of child laborers, the strike itself was not successful.
Nonetheless, the 1903 march was an important first step toward the government's eradication of child labor in the United States. Public outcry from the flurry of ongoing newspaper reports caused states to look into drafting child protection laws or enforcing the ones they already had. Within a few years, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York passed the nation's first true child labor laws.