The Baby Strikes and Ending Child Labor

By Larry C. Price

By Larry C. Price

Larry Price is a Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist. His pictures of child miners in Africa are heart wrenching. In the early 20th century,  Lewis Hine used similar images of American child workers to advocate for child labor laws. Price’s photographs have the potential today. It is helpful, however, to look at the history of child labor reform in the U.S. to understand how change occurs. It takes more than empathy to protect children from exploitive labor. A comparison of 2 historic strikes by young workers in the U.S. offers some insights into what combination of factors may result in positive change.

Just before 1:00 in the afternoon on July 7, 1903, approximately 200-400 striking textile workers in Philadelphias’ Kensington mills district gathered at Torresdale Park. About half the group were children aged 10-15.  Observers described the other half as “adults,” although many were only 16 and 17. The strikers planned to march through the streets of Philadelphia and then make their way another 100 miles north to New York City. The idea was a publicity stunt conceived by labor activist, “Mother” Mary Harris Jones. She thought that putting the focus on children would help gain sympathy for the plight of the approximately 100,000 striking textile workers employed in the Kensington mill district, of which 16,000 were under age 16.[1]

Another strike by eastern Pennsylvania mill workers 30 years later looked very similar to the 1903 protest, but a closer look reveals important differences. During the spring of 1933, union workers at the Penn-Allen Shirt Company in Allentown, the D. & D. Shirt Company in Northampton, as well as dozens of other small contract shops in the region, went on strike demanding higher pay and shorter working hours. Since 1905, Pennsylvania state law prohibited factory employment for anyone under 14 and generally banned night work. In addition, the state’s 1913 Women’s Labor Law restricted the work-week for women and girls to 54 hours. The strikers charged that the onset of the Great Depression led employers, and desperate workers, to circumvent state labor laws.[2]

Had anything changed? The 1903 “March of the Mill Children” from Philadelphia showcased working children as abused waifs, denied an education, and “raked by cruel toil beneath the iron wheels of greed.”[3] Approximately 20 percent of American children 10-15  worked for wages in the first decade of the 20th century.[4] About 10 percent of all textile workers in the Kensington district were 8-15 and approximately 2/3rds of young workers were girls. Newspapers in 1903 noted the sensational image of children marching for workers’ rights, but most editors and journalists were hostile to the cause. A Cincinnati newspaper called Mother Jones and her marchers, “a gang of lunatics.” Public officials were generally more sympathetic, but still did nothing to end the strike or aid the workers.[5]

In 1933 the press was more sympathetic to the strikers and dubbed the mill workers’ protest a “Baby Strike.” The strikers did not claim this title for themselves, but its use by the press is especially noteworthy.  Somewhat ironically, few participants in the 1933 strike as young as the 10, 11, 12, and 13 year olds involved in the Mother Jones’ march. Still, almost 40 percent of the 1933 strikers were 14, 15, and 16.[6]  Government officials also showed more sympathy by launching an investigation and asking specifically for the young workers’ side of the story. These shifts parallel changing public attitudes about childhood and adolescence.[7]

Approximately 100 children and 100 adults joined the march to NYC in 1903. Consequently, the Kensington strike’s focus changed from a protest over hours and wages for “workers” to one highlighting the abuse of children.  Marchers literally draped themselves in patriotic regalia and some children wore costumes made to look like soldiers’ uniforms from the American Revolutionary War. One boy played a drum and others blew fifes as the group walked and rode in wagons on the way to NYC (Mother Jones stayed in hotels along the way).  Sympathetic observers offered the marchers shelter.  Ninety-degree heat, an uncertain food supply, and other difficult conditions took a toll. The drummer boy complained to a reporter, “I’d like to trade that drum for a good sandwich.” By the time the group reached its destination, “what started out as about two hundred dwindled to several dozen, partly by design, party by attrition.” To make matters worse, petty disputes arose among the marchers and outside contributions were not as generous as anticipated. The New York Times took particular pleasure in describing the march’s disappointments.[11]  Newspapers that depended on young newsies to sell papers to the public generally condemned any attempt to gain child labor restrictions or enforcement of existing laws.[12]

It is not clear how many youngsters stayed with the march until the end (reports also vary as to whether both boys and girls group were included in the group). Nonetheless, the youngsters that stuck with the protest must have felt a sense of personal commitment to the cause. Many came without a parent, so parental coercion was not as important as might be expected. All participants had at least some degree of personal commitment. As one adult marcher bitterly complained, “I would rather work sixty hours a week than to endure this torture.” Danny James, “a very thin and short child” headed the march by carrying a sign identifying the group: “We are Textile Workers.” Other youthful protestors’ placards proclaimed, “We Want to Go to School”…. “More School, Less Hospitals”…. “We only Ask for Justice” …. “We ARE protected by a tariff” …. and “We Only Want Our Share”.[13] The signs were obviously prepared by adults, but child strikers clearly let the statements speak for them. Some on-lookers were surprised that children would assert themselves as strikers. Many people learned about the abuses of child labor for the first time from the young marchers.[14]

On July 23rd, 1903 about 60 children and adults reached Manhattan. Thousands of New Yorkers watched the demonstrators walk up Second Avenue by torch light, and 600 police stood by to maintain order. Mother Jones decided to continue the demonstration  by next taking the group to President Theodore Roosevelt’s vacation home at Oyster Bay. The U.S. Secret Service unsuccessfully tried to convince Jones to abandon the idea, but she did tone down the protest by only taking only 3 child strikers and 2 adult organizers on the quest to speak with the president. Roosevelt ignored the group, and did not respond to a deferential letter Jones had sent on July 15th.  The textile strike was broken within the next few weeks. In the end, the 1903 “March of the Mill Children” looked like a complete failure. Despite its failures, as historian Elliot Gorn argues, the 1903 March of the Children was “an early moment in the long change of consciousness that led to the abolition of child labor in America.”[16]

The 1933 Allentown-Northampton strike highlights those changes. Pennsylvania, similar to most other states, had only nibbled away at the issue of child labor. In 1915, Pennsylvania’s Governor Martin Brumbaugh signed a bill linking education to employment by prohibiting anyone under 14 to work for wages until completing the 6th grade. For children that qualified for work certificates under the new law, work schedules were limited to 9 hours a day and 51 hours per week. The same legislation forbid night work for children and made it illegal to hold jobs in certain “hazardous” industries. In 1925 the Pennsylvania legislature created a Bureau of Women and Children within the Department of Labor and Industry to monitor compliance with the state’s existing child labor law. Children’s participation in the workforce declined throughout the 1920s.[17]

Nonetheless, it took the onset of the Great Depression with its soaring unemployment rate for adults to raise new calls to eliminate child labor. In this atmosphere, the textile workers in Allentown and Northampton went on strike in the spring of 1933. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the strike involved more than 40 separate facilities employing 3,200 workers, 25 percent of whom were 14 and 15 years of age. Like the 1903 Kensington strike, young workers brought their cause to the public by marching, this time in Pennsylvania’s state capital. However, unlike the 1903 Kensington strike, the workers gained support from some of Pennsylvania’s most powerful government officials, especially Governor Gifford Pinchot. Pinchot established a special “Sweatshop Commission” to investigate the strikers’ charges of low pay, abuse, and long hours. The governor stepped into the fight after the mayors of the two communities involved had very different responses to the strike. The mayor of Allentown, Fred Hart, established a sweatshop commission composed of the town’s “leading citizens.” The mayor of Northampton, Charles Fox, blamed the walkout on “agitators” and promised the factory owners “police protection.” Despite Fox’s opposition to the strikers, other Northampton officials criticized the factory owners, noting that if they paid “decent wages,” police protection would not be “necessary.”[18]

In another change from the 1903 strike, newspapers across the county ran articles sympathetic to the strikers. The Toledo, Ohio Leader featured an in depth article on April 28, 1933 with the headline, “Sweatshop Conditions Force Children’s Strike” and the subheading, “Pennsylvania Boys and Girls Are in Revolt Against Bosses; Pay Below Chinese Standards.” The article went on to charge, “Child labor exploited to unbelievable limits by unscrupulous bosses during the depression, has revolted. And America—the richest nation in the world—is witnessing its first strike of ‘baby workers.’”[19] The newspaper correctly identified the high adult unemployment rate during the Great Depression as a significant boost to child labor reform efforts. The article went on to shamelessly promote the strikers’ cause,

“…hundreds of underfed, overworked, and grossly underpaid children, employes [sic] of the shirt and pajama factory sweatshops which infest that district are on strike against wages as low as 15 cents a week and working condition [sic] which would make the overseer of a Soudan slave camp blush with shame.”

Interestingly, the reporter also noted that “the children are engaged in active and effective picketing, and are receiving the support of decent-minded citizens.” He judged the strikers’ demands as “modest, very modest. . . .All they are asking for is the ‘prompt payment of wages,’ a 10 percent increase in piecework schedules, restoration of a recent pay cut [rates had been cut from 6 cents a dozen to 3 cents], and recognition of ‘a union.’”[20]

Pennsylvania newspapers offered more subdued coverage, but were still sympathetic to the strikers’ cause. On April 29th, the Philadelphia Record ran with the headline, “Sweatshop Probe Hears of Hardships of ‘Baby Strikers’.” Even the Winston Salem, North Carolina Sentinel featured a story entitled, “Forlorn Parade of Sweat-Shop Children Protests $1 Week Wages.” The article told the story of “Mildred Sweeney…a thin, snub-nosed little Irish girl, who ought to be thinking of nothing more serious than basket ball [sic]. But Mildred, at 15, has been the sole support of a family of ten for the last year. From 7 o’clock in the morning until 5 in the evening, Mildred trimmed shirts in a factory in Allentown. The highest wages she made in one week for all her long hours of work was $1.10…One week she made just five cents.”  The paper went on to describe how Mildred often came home too tired to eat, with only 50 or 75 cents to show for the week’s work. Owners got away with paying such low wages because workers’  compensation was based on piece work; one-half cent to 2 or 3 cents a dozen trimmed shirts. The piecework system meant that employees like Mildred were often idle during the many hours they spent in the workshops.  “The week that I just got a nickel,” Mildred reported, “I had to go everyday, just like always, and wait to see if there was anything to do. Sometimes we’d wait all day and go home at night without earning anything. But if you don’t come everyday, they fire you.”[21]

The practice of hiring adolescent workers at very low wages became more common as the economic depression worsened. Factory owners escaping high rents in the cities like Philadelphia moved to small towns and hastily set up shop. Local families, hurt by the depression, sent sons and especially daughters to the new factories for jobs. Labor unions and government officials throughout the country blamed child labor for at least part of the nation’s unemployment problem and low wages among adults. In December, 1932 at the U.S. Children’s Bureau’s emergency conference on child labor held in Washington, D.C., out-going Secretary of Labor William K. Doak, worried that children were being employed at the expense of adults. The in-coming Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins agreed.[22]

The Great Depression proved fertile ground for the 1933 “Baby Strike.” On April 28 and 29, the governor’s “sweatshop hearings” were held in Northampton and then Allentown. The scene in Northampton included a dramatic moment when one of the owners of the D. & D. Shirt Company, Nathan Dashefsky, “boasted that he was armed. [Officials] required [him] to unswing his pistol and keep it unloaded during the rest of the hearing.” Dashefsky then told the investigators that he did not believe “employees had the right to bargain … collectively on any matter.” He called all the young workers “liars.” Hale A. Guss, a Northampton borough manager, added further to the hearing’s excitment by charging that the factory owners, Nathan and his brother Harry Dashefsky, used language in front of their young female employees that “only the scum of the earth would use.” Charlotte E. Carr, Deputy Secretary of the State Department of Labor and Industry agreed and noted that several of the girls were embarrassed to tell their stories. Officials decided to hold a separate hearing conducted solely by women investigators, including the governor’s wife, Cornelia Bryce Pinchot.[23]

Cornelia Pinchot and Charlotte Carr summarized the young strikers’ testimonies for the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry Industrial Board. Carr told the board that the strikers’ picketing “was followed within complete conformity of the law and that both adults and minors cooperated in this effort.” A controversy arose when Carr noted that factory owners had illegally fired the striking employees. As a result, school authorities in the area took the position that the state’s compulsory school attendance law required that fired workers (strikers?) under 16 return to school, thereby making the strikers truant. The board concluded that since the strikers were involved in a legal labor protest, the state’s compulsory school attendance law should not be used to break the strike. Doing so placed young workers at a disadvantage compared to adults, but board members lamented that they had to take this position, praising the idea of even tougher school attendance laws. The board voted to continue dealing with the issue during the next month’s meeting.[24]

In the meantime, Cornelia Pinchot marched with the young strikers in Harrisburg on May 11th. She also gave speeches in support of the strikers that were littered with sad stories about the girl workers.[25] Throughout the 1930s Cornelia Pinchot acted as a champion for organized labor’s efforts to end sweatshops and the employment of 14 and 15 year olds. During its next meeting, the Pennsylvania Industrial Board heard testimony from education officials arguing that the state’s main interest should be to keep children in school. Members of the board agreed, but were bound by law to protect the rights of workers. On July 12, 1933 the board passed a resolution prohibiting the hiring of young strike breakers at the shops and ordering that minors engaged in a legal strike would not lose their work permits.[26] The board unofficially sympathized with education officials.

In the end, the Dashefsky brothers broke the strike at the Northampton factory. But even before the governor’s sweatshop hearings, workers at the Penn Allen Shirt Company signed a contract including a 10 percent pay increase and recognition of the Clothing Workers Union.[27] At least some of the strikers achieved their goals. But pressure from labor unions and unemployed adults continued to push government officials to do something about the employment of 14 and 15  year olds in the nation’s factories. It is reasonable to assume that the young Allentown-Northampton strikers were caught by surprise when the Pennsylvania legislature passed a new law in 1935 raising the minimum working age to 16. The law also limited 16 and 17 year olds to an 8-hour a day, 40-hour work week. The act also placed restrictions on the kinds of employment for those 16-21. About the same time the state passed a new compulsory school attendance law to age 16. Clearly attitudes had changed, and the scarcity of jobs for adults fueled new pressure for reform at the national level as well. In 1938, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act. This significant legislation included the first federally enforceable restrictions on child labor.[28]

While child welfare advocates celebrated the new laws as a final victory in a long struggle to end child labor, some adolescent workers probably resented the new restrictions on their freedom of choice.

Like many child laborers around the world today, young workers saw themselves as legitimate and autonomous workers with interests and rights similar to adults. Oral histories of adults who worked as children during the period suggest that many former child laborers agreed later in their lives with reformers that school was a better choice than the work place for children and teens.[29]  Nevertheless, it is important to include young workers’ views and experiences as well as the perspectives of adult reformers when tracing the history of labor reform and as we consider policies to protect the interests of young workers throughout the world today.  It is also important to note that adults must have a direct interest in removing children from the workplace in order for  significant change to take place.

[1] Estimates of the march participants varied at the time and in scholars’ evaluation of the event since; on Mary Harris Jones and her labor activism see Elliot Gorn, Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Women in America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001); for an overview of the Kensington children’s crusade see, Gorn, pp.131-138; C. K. McFarland, “Crusade for Child Laborers: Mother Jones and the March of the Mill Children, Pennsylvania History 38(July 1971):283-296; Russell E. Smith, “The March of the Mill Children,” Social Science Review 41(September 1967), pp.300-310; and Stephen Currie, We Have Marched Together: The Working Children’s Crusade (Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Publications Company, 1997); for a handy overview of child labor in Pennsylvania see Kenneth C. Wolensky, “Child Labor in Pennsylvania,” (Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical Museum Commission, 1998), Historic Leaflet No.43; Mary Harris Jones described the July, 1903 march in her autobiography, The Autobiography of Mother Jones, chapter 10, first published by Charles Kerr in 1925 and available on the Internet at, accessed January 20, 2003.

[2] Mac Parker, “Sweatshop Probe Hears of Hardships of ‘Baby Strikers’, Philadelphia Record, April 28, 1933, newspaper clipping in National Labor Committee Papers, Container 64, Library of Congress, Manuscript Collection, Washington, D.C.

[3] Letter from Mary Harris Jones to Theodore Roosevelt, July 15, 1903, included in Philip Foner, ed., Mother Jones Speaks (New York: Monad Press, 1983), pp.555-556; Gron, The Most Dangerous Woman, p.135.

[4] Robert Willard McAhren, “Making the Nation Safe for Childhood: A History of the Movement for Federal Regulation of Child Labor, 1900-1938,” pp.5-6; U.S. Children’s Bureau, “Child Labor Facts and Figures,” Children’s Bureau pub. no. 197 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1930).

[5] Gorn, The Most Dangerous Woman, p.139.

[6] The National Child Labor Committee collected newspaper clippings on the strike, National Child Labor Committee Papers (NCLC papers), box 64, Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Washington, D.C.; Data on the 1933 strike was gleaned from the 1933-1934 Minute Books compiled for the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, RG 16, box 2, Pennsylvania State Archives, Harrisburg, PA.

[7] On the changing definitions of childhood during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century see for example, Viviana A. Zelizer, Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children (New York: Basic Books, 1985); Joseph M. Hawes, The Children’s Rights Movement: A History of Advocacy and Protection, (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991); Gail S. Murray, American Children’s Literature and the Construction of Childhood (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1998), pp.51-207; and Leroy Ashby, Endangered Children: Dependency, Neglect, and Abuse in American History (Boston: Twayne Publishers), pp.79-124.

[8] C. Zoe Smith, “An Alternative View of the 30s: Hine’s and Bourke-White’s Industrial Photos, Journalism Quarterly 60(1983):305-310; George Dimock, “Children of the Mills: Re-Reading Lewis Hine’s Child-Labour Photographs, Oxford Art Journal 16(1993):37-54; Jennifer L. Peresie, “Crusader with a Camera: Lewis Hine and His Battle Against Child ‘Slavery,’” Pennsylvania Heritage 23(1997):4-13; and Robert Macieski, “’Before Their Time’: Lewis W. Hine and the New Hampshire Crusade Against Child Labor,” Historical New Hampshire 55(2000):90-107.

[9] Historians of slavery have found advertisements for runaways very useful for countering claims that blacks were docile and unintelligent; for example see John H. Bracey, Jr., August Meier, and Elliott Rudwick, eds., American Slavery: The Question of Resistance (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 1971); Eugene D. Genovese, From Rebellion to Revolution: Afro-American Slave Revolts in the Making of the Modern World (New York: Vintage Books, 1981, c1979); and Norrence T. Jones, Born and Child of Freedom, Yet a Slave: Mechanisms of Control and Strategies of Resistance in Antebellum South Carolina (Hanover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 1990); on the regulation of adolescent girls see for example, Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986); and Mary E. Odem, Delinquent Daughters: Policing and Protecting Adolescent Female Sexuality in the United States, 1885-1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995).

[10] Gorn, The Most Dangerous Woman, p.131; Jones, Autobiography, chapter X.

[11] Currie, We Have Marched Together, p.37; Gorn, The Most Dangerous Woman, pp.132-134; Smith, “March of the Mill Children,” pp.301-302; New York Times, July 10, 1903, p.1, and July 12, 1903, p.1.

[12] Lindenmeyer, “A Right to Childhood, p.131; Trattner, Crusade for the Children, pp.171-172; Nettie P. McGill, “Children in Street Work,” U.S. Children’s Bureau pub. no.183 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1928).

[13] Gorn, The Most Dangerous Woman, pp.133-134; Currie, We Have Marched Together, p.30-33; reports of the march are included in the Philadelphia Inquirer from July 8th through 20th, 1903, microfilm, Newspaper and Government Documents Reading Room, Library of Congress, and in the NCLC Papers, box 64.

[15] Currie, We Have Marched Together, pp.34-36; oral histories conducted with mill workers from the Kensington region are included in, Jean Seder, Voices of Kensington: Vanishing Mills, Vanishing Neighborhoods (Ardmore, PA: Whitmore Publishing Company, 1982); Gorn, The Most Dangerous Woman, p.140.

[16] The quotation from Ruben Dagenhart is from Lowell Mellet, “The Sequel of the Dagenhart Case (also in Robert H. Bremner, et. al., Children and Youth in America: A Documentary History, [Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1971], vol. 2, pp.716-717); and Lowell Mellet, “How Sharper than a Serpent’s Tooth It Is to Have a Thankless Child,” Labor, Nov. 17, 1923, reprinted in Grace Abbott, The Child and the State: Legal Status in the Family, Apprenticeship, and Child Labor, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1938) vol. 1, pp.515-517; see also Lowell Mellett, “The Dagenhart Boys,” clipping, U.S. Children’s Bureau Papers, RG 102, box 9, file 16, National Archives, College Park, Maryland.

[17] The Pennsylvania State Code includes specifics about each of these laws, Pennsylvania State Law Library, Harrisburg, PA; for a brief synopsis see, Wolensky, “Child Labor in Pennsylvania,” p.4.

[18] Budd L. McKillips, “Sweatshop Conditions Force Children’s Strike,” Toledo, Ohio Leader, April 28, 1933, NCLC papers, box 64.

[19] McKillips, “Sweatshop Conditions Force Children’s Strike.”

[20] Ibid.

[21] Mac Parker, “Sweatshop Probe Hears of Hardships of ‘Baby Strikers’”, Philadelphia Record, April 29, 1933, NCLC papers, box 64; Dorothy Roe, “Forlorn Parade of Sweat-Shop Children Protests $1 Week Wages,” Winston Salem, North Carolina Sentinel, no date but probably April 28 or 29, 1933, NCLC papers, box 64.

[22] “Doak Says Children Should Not Be Employed,” New York Times, December (no day), 1932, NCLC papers, box 64; for an overview of the Great Depression’s affect on child labor see Lindenmeyer, “A Right to Childhood,”pp.195-202; U.S. Children’s Bureau memorandum, “Effect of NRA codes on Child Labor,” June 5, 1935, Children’s Bureau papers (CBP), RG 102, box 6, file 6; and “NRA Summary,” typed report, CBP, RG 102,, box 10, file 3.

[23] Parker, “Sweatshop Probe Hears of Hardships of ‘Baby Strikers’”.

[24] Minutes of the Industrial Board, Department of Labor and Industry, RG 16, “Meeting of the Industrial Board Meeting, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, April 21, 1933,” pp.75-76.

[25] “Speeches”, Cornelia Pinchot Papers, typed transcript of speech, no date, but probably given several times in April and May, 1933, box 271, file “Speeches, 1933”, Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Washington, D.C.; “Mrs. Pinchot Joins March of Strikers,” Lorain, Ohio Journal-Times Herald, May 12, 1933, NCLC papers, box 64.

[26] Minutes of the Industrial Board, June 22, 1933 and July 12, 1933, “Employment of Minor under sixteen years of age where strikes are in progress,” pp. 89-92 and pp.109-110; the full regulation states: “The employment of minors under 16 years of age in an establishment where a strike or lockout is in progress is prohibited, except that this prohibition shall not apply to minors who were legally certificated to work in such establishment before the strike or lockout was declared”, Rule M-38 of the Regulations Affecting the Employment of Minors.

[27] “Allentown Strikers Given Wage Increase,” Philadelphia Inquirer, April 25, 1933, microfilm, Library of Congress, Newspapers and Government Documents Reading Room, Washington, D.C.

[28] For an excellent summary of child labor and its regulation in the U.S. up to the present see David I. Macleod, “Child Labor,” included in Joseph M. Hawes, editor, and Elizabeth F. Shores, assistant editor, The Family in America: An Encyclopedia (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC CLIO, 2001), vol. 1, pp.174-186.

[29] For example see the earlier reference to Ruben Dagenhart and oral histories included in Jacqueline Dowd Hall, et. al., Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987).

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1 Response to The Baby Strikes and Ending Child Labor

  1. some really excellent info , Glad I observed this.

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