Keating-Owen Act of 1916

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Keating-Owen Act of 1916

William G. Ross

The Keating-Owen Act of 1916 (P.L. 249, 39 Stat. 675), was the first federal statute to impose restrictions on child labor. Under the act, the products of mines that employed children under age sixteen and factories employing children under age fourteen could not be transported by means of interstate commerce. The law also prohibited interstate shipment of products from factories that employed children under age sixteen for more than eight hours a day, for more than six days any week, or at night. Violation of the law constituted a criminal misdemeanor for which factories could be fined.

The Keating-Owen Act eliminated or restricted employment for approximately a quarter of a million children. The law did not affect the far larger number of children who labored on farms, usually under conditions that were less harsh than those endured by children who worked in factories or mines.

The statute was part of a long campaign waged by social reformers and progressive activists, who had achieved significant victories in most states even before enactment of the federal law. By 1916 approximately thirty-six states prohibited industrial employment of children under aged fourteen, and eighteen states limited the working hours of children ages fourteen to sixteen. Opponents of child labor believed a federal law was needed because the states that lacked child labor laws were unlikely to enact such laws during the foreseeable future. The lack of a federal law also gave competitive economic advantages to those states, mostly Southern, that lacked child labor laws. Various business interests outside the South forged a coalition with social reformers to ensure the statute's enactment.

Carried along by the tide of the progressive reform movement, the Keating-Owen bill passed the House by a vote of 337 to 46 and received Senate approval by a margin of 50 to 12. President Woodrow Wilson signed it into law with great enthusiasm, regarding it as a centerpiece of his social and economic reform program (his New Freedom program), recognizing that it could help win votes in the upcoming presidential election.


The statute encountered vigorous opposition by Southern textile manufacturers. In 1918 the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated it in a five-to-four decision in Hammer v. Dagenhart on the grounds it exceeded Congress's power, as stated in the Constitution, to regulate interstate commerce. The Court's decision surprised many opponents of child labor, as the Court in 1913 had unanimously sustained a state child labor law as an appropriate exercise of the state's inherent power to promote the welfare of its citizens in Sturges & Burns Manufacturing Co. v. Beauchamp. Moreover, in other decisions the Court had seemed to reject the distinction between manufacturing and commerce which it now revived in the 1918 ruling.

Although the Court acknowledged that child labor was a social evil, Justice William R. Day's opinion contended that any relief, or elimination of that evil, must come from the states not from a federal law. He argued that the child labor law would practically destroy federalism, emphasizing that Congress lacked power to regulate the conduct of local manufacturing enterprises.

In a stinging dissent, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes argued that earlier Supreme Court decisions had established that Congress enjoyed broad powers to regulate interstate commerce and that the statute did not impinge on any right of the states to regulate their own internal affairs. Holmes also chided the Court for reading its own "moral conceptions" into the Constitution.

One year after the Dagenhart case, Congress tried to avoid the Court's objections by enacting a law that imposed taxes rather than fines on employers of children. The Court struck down this statute in Bailey v. Drexel Furniture Co. (1922), an eight-to-one decision holding that this statute exceeded Congress's constitutional power to impose taxes.

After these Supreme Court decisions, opponents of child labor concluded it was futile to push for further federal legislation. Their next step was an attempt to amend the Constitution. Although both houses of Congress overwhelmingly approved a child labor amendment in 1924, intense opposition by business interests prevented its ratification by the required three-quarters of the states.

Widespread political support for reform measures returned during the New Deal of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Congress included restrictions on child labor in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. The Supreme Court sustained the constitutionality of this statute in United States v. Darby (1941), which overruled Dagenhart by holding that child labor was a proper subject for regulation under the commerce clause.

See also: Fair Labor Standards Act.


Tratter, Walter I. Crusade for the Children: A History of the National Child Labor Committee and Child Labor Reform in America. New York: Crown, 1970.

Wood, Stephen B. Constitutional Politics in the Progressive Era: Child Labor and the Law. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968.

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Keating-Owen Act of 1916

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