March of Dimes and the Crescenta Valley’s ‘Porchlight Parade’

Polio was a scourge in the early and middle part of the last century. It was a disease that paralyzed the muscles of the body and, most heart breaking, it mostly struck kids and young people. There were waves of infection, often in summer. Just like in our recent COVID pandemic, people avoided crowds, and schools, theaters and public pools closed. The disease not only caused paralysis of arms and legs, but also took away the ability to breathe. People who couldn’t breathe were placed into “iron lungs,” sealed metal tubes that pressurized rhythmically to simulate breathing.

In 1938 the March of Dimes organization was founded to raise money to find a polio vaccine. It was championed by President Franklin Roosevelt, himself a victim of polio. The name – March of Dimes – was coined by comedian Eddie Cantor. The “March of Time” was a wildly popular theater newsreel of that period, so “March of Dimes” played on that already well-known name. Diving even further into the origin of the name: “March” because polio often robbed victims of the ability to walk, and “Dimes” because in the 1930s Great Depression that was an amount the average family could afford to give. Eddie Cantor summed it up: “Nearly everyone can send in a dime or several dimes. However, it takes only 10 dimes to make a dollar and if a million people send only one dime, the total will be $100,000.” This strategy was effective as just in the first month the campaign brought in almost 3 million dimes.

Hollywood piled onto this cause lending celebrity status, and the March of Dimes became a household name. The charity was hugely successful in raising money just as polio numbers were increasing through the ’40s and ’50s. The money went directly to vaccine research and, thanks to the donations, by 1955 a polio vaccine was developed.

Because the disease often struck children, mothers became a force in the March of Dimes on a national level. They instituted the “Porchlight Parade for Polio.” It was a door-to-door effort in which an army of mothers marched across neighborhoods, stopping at each door that had a porchlight on to gather donations. It was organized in a military fashion with generals, captains and lieutenants leading their troops from their headquarters.

In 1954 a local mothers march was organized in conjunction with a celebrity-studded parade in Montrose to benefit the March of Dimes. Hundreds of mothers volunteered to do the door-to-door collections. They were urged to watch two 15-minute TV shows about the mothers march featuring actress Helen Hayes. Helen Hayes had just a few years before tragically lost her 19-year-old daughter to polio and she had thrown herself into charity work to eradicate the disease.

In the cold of January 1954, the women chose a Tuesday night from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Women fanned out in their own neighborhoods while transportation volunteers transported some to areas not covered. They were armed with small March of Dimes donation boxes, special cards with slots to hold dimes and quarters, and donation cans, some of them gruesomely decorated to resemble iron lungs. The women did well and, on a national scale, half the March of Dimes donations were from these mothers marches.

So what happened to the March of Dimes when polio was eradicated? It is still around today and has simply shifted its focus to other causes. March of Dimes helped to fund the vaccines’ development and distribution through the late ’50s. In 1958, to continue its focus on childhood diseases, its shifted efforts to the prevention of birth defects. In the ’70s the focus became healthy pregnancies. In 1990, its efforts naturally transitioned to prevention of pre-term birth. The rate of early birth and low birth weight has been increasing and March of Dimes has taken on that challenge. March of Dimes is proud to uphold its commitment as the champion for all moms and babies.

Next week, the big star-studded March of Dimes parade of 1954.

Mike Lawler is the former
president of the Historical
Society of the Crescenta Valley
and loves local history.
Reach him at