By Jim Talone
Jim Talone uncovered Ella Bloor’s story while researching “Boys in Glass Houses,” a documentary about child labor practices in the early 1900s. The documentary is available for viewing here.
Ten years before the Statue of Liberty proclaimed “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses…,” Bridgeton’s own Ella Reeve Bloor was a young woman working for those same people. For over 75 years, Ella fought for the rights of women, children and workingmen from Maine to Colorado. She knew Vladimir Lenin and worked with Upton Sinclair. She participated in strikes in mills and mines all across America and was arrested hundreds of times for her activism.
Born in 1862 on Staten Island, she grew up in a middle-class family in Bridgeton. In her autobiography entitled "We are Many," she describes how as a young girl she accompanied her father as they took the railroad to Camden to visit her aunt. Walt Whitman, America’s favorite poet, lived on the same street and while her father was visiting his sister, Ella and Whitman would ride the Philadelphia ferry. She says he didn’t talk much but the two of them sat together and watched people.
She attended the prestigious Ivy Hall Seminary until she was 14, which was not unusual for that era. About that time, she became aware of social injustice. She volunteered to help her pastor when he went to help the poor. She also worked with a friend of her mother’s who ran a night school for children working in the glass factory. Her encounters with the poor left her wondering why she lived in a nice house and the poor lived in squalor down the hill.
She would marry three times and raise six children. Very early on, she became involved with reform movements. At a Pennsylvania women’s suffrage convention, a woman expressed a common sentiment that the kids were better off in the mills. Some thought that if you left children alone on the streets they would get into trouble. Ella tore into those women, as she knew the working conditions from seeing the children at work in the glass factories and working with the kids at the night school.
Through these years while she was raising her children, she wrote articles for periodicals and a textbook. She joined the Socialist Party with Eugene Debs and was involved in labor organization and took part in strikes throughout the country.
Ella came back to South Jersey some time after 1905 with a young Upton Sinclair. She had already worked with him on the conditions in the stockyards in Chicago. Now Sinclair wanted to see if the glass mills were obeying the new law banning children from working at night. He recruited Ella who posed as the stepmother with two boys of the right age. At the biggest mill in town she was assured her children would be welcome for day and night work, and there was even factory housing available. While going into the plant, she spotted the president of the factory, an old friend of her father’s, and she had to duck her head, but was not noticed.
Later, she persuaded a glassblower to sneak her into the factory delivering his dinner. What she found confirmed their fears.
“Most of the boys I saw were 10 or 12 years old. It was the children’s job to hold bottles at the end of a long iron rod in the blazing furnace for a certain length of time and then hand them to the blowers. The heat was intense but they dared not move the bottle even a hair’s breadth. It was terrible work for children,” wrote Ella.
Ella continued her work as an organizer for strikes and strike relief and became the first woman to run for state office in Connecticut and in 1918 ran for Lt. Governor of New York. In 1919 she and others were kicked out of the Socialist Party and went on to found the Communist Labor Party. In 1922, she was selected to attend the Red International labor convention in Moscow. From 1922 to 1948, she sat on the Central Committee of the Communist Party but continued her reform work in America. It must be noted that while the Communist Party fell out of favor in the 1950s, it was never illegal and many serious and concerned people were part of the party or approved of its work.
Later in life, Ella became a much-loved figure and was affectionally called “Mother Bloor.” She wrote her autobiography, "We are Many" in 1940. She was arrested for the last time in Nebraska when she was 73 and died in 1951 at age 89.
Her epitaph reads:
“She was born during the war to free the slaves. She died rejoicing that half of the mankind were free. Called ‘Mother’ by countless workers, farmers, Negro and white who were inspired by her eloquent voice to fight for a better world…”