Appalachia Mills in the Early Twentieth Century

Appalachia Mill

The work the girls were required to do consisted of using razor sharp knives to cut velvet and to breathe air heavy with lime dust.

In 1902, Dorothy Adams wrote an article for The New York Herald. In her article, she described the strike of mill girls in Appalachia. The girls worked ten or more hours a day receiving only two or three dollars a week. While talking to the girls Adam’s recording one stating, “Oh, we do wish Mother Jones would come and help us with our strike! They say that strikers always win when they have Mother Jones to help them.”

Mother Jones Fights for the Children Workers

Adams could not help to feel sorry for the young girls. As they spoke to her, she observed their swollen and knotted feet and ankles. To the young girls Mother Jones was a wise feminine lady who always turned up in the nick of time. The girls were known to scan the hills of Appalachia looking for her. Unfortunately, Mother Jones never came to their rescue due to other commitments. The girls surrendered and went back to work. Within a year of this incident, Mother Jones became a well-known advocate for child labor.

Mother Jones had always been aware of the plight of children workers and the horrible working the children worked in. In 1901, her first published article appeared in the International Socialist Review. The article titled “Civilization in Southern Mills”

Mother Jones describes her experience working in textile mills watching mothers throw cold water on their children to keep them from falling asleep. She watched the children work with dangerous machines. She saw children losing limbs and then the masters of the mill discard them like garbage. Mother Jones knew she had to do something to bring the atrocities of child labor to the attention of the Roosevelt.

March of the Mill Children

In 1903, the 73-year-old led a march from Philadelphia to New York City to publicize the need for national child labor laws. When the “March of the Mill Children” reached Manhattan, Mother Jones conducted a rally on Twentieth Street, horrifying the crowd with reports of factories’ deplorable conditions. She led her marchers to Coney Island as well, allowing the children to enjoy a day of fun. Mother Jones proceeded to President Theodore Roosevelt’s home in Oyster Bay, but he had already left to avoid her. Roosevelt’s private secretary met with the group and encouraged Mother Jones to put her request in writing and send it to the President.

In her letter to the President she expressed that child labor jeopardized the republic. She said, “for ill-formed, uneducated children could not grow up to be true citizens.” She continued to explain state laws went unenforced. She told the president that federal legislation needed to be passed in order to protect the children from the horrible working conditions they are forced to endure. If the president ever read her letter is not known, but she did receive a response back from his secretary. The letter stated “the President had the ‘hardiest sympathy’ with efforts to prevent child labor but that the Constitution empowered only states to deal with the crisis.”

The march of the mill children was Mother Jones’ greatest effort to bring attention to the crisis of child labor. To Mother Jones restricting child labor was never about social reform. It was more about men and women making more money so the children wouldn’t have to work to help support the family. To her the logic was simple. The capitalists would hire mothers and fathers to work as cheaply as possible while selling the products at a competitive price. The business owners would do whatever it took to make profits even if it meant exploiting children for their own profit. Mother Jones knew the children only worked because their parents couldn’t make it on their income alone. The laws eventually changed much later in the twentieth century.


  1. Elliott J. Gorn. Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America (New York: Hill & Wang, 2001).
  2. The March of the Mill Children. Russell E. Smith.
  3. The Social Service Review, Vol. 41, No. 3 (Sep., 1967), pp. 298-303