The Keating-Owen Child Labor Act of 1916

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Child labor is a practice we do not condone today, but this wasn't always the case. In this lesson, you'll learn about one of the first pieces of legislation designed to end child labor.

Child Labor

If you think growing up is hard today, try to imagine what life was like in the late 19th century. America was industrializing at an incredible rate and while some people became very rich, others lived in abject poverty. Factory work paid very little, and the government had a deliberate hands-off policy when it came to regulating business. To cope, most working-class families had to rely on income from every member of the family, including children. Child labor was common in American society going into the 20th century, when many started protesting against it. It would take a long time before child labor was completely outlawed in the United States, but one of the first pieces of legislation to focus on that goal was the Keating-Owen Child Labor Act of 1916.

Child labor was common in the early 20th century
Child labor


In the late 19th and early 20th century, American society was beginning to change. People, particularly those of the middle class, began focusing heavily on social issues and started looking for practical solutions. These solutions generally involved calling for greater government involvement in their lives, a sentiment that had not been common since the end of the Civil War. As historians, we call the time period spanning between 1890 and 1920 the Progressive Era. Progressive reformers tackled alcohol abuse, environmental issues, voting rights, and female suffrage in addition to a myriad of other concerns.

One of the issues that caught their attention was child labor. In 1900, roughly 2 million children were employed, many in dangerous factory and mine conditions. A few major figures started publicly speaking against child labor, such as sociologist Karl Marx and author Charles Dickens. Progressives claimed that the right to childhood was a fundamental human necessity, and that working children were denied the health and educational opportunities gained from playing, socializing, and just being a kid.

The Keating-Owen Act

The issue of child labor made its way to Washington DC, and found support among some important figures. Two legislators, Colorado Representative Edward Keating and Oklahoma Senator Robert Owen together sponsored a bill to introduce regulation of child labor based on a 1906 proposal by Senator Albert Beveridge. The bill proposed that Congress could use its power to regulate interstate commerce in order to eliminate the use of child labor in manufacturing the goods. The bill was approved by Congress in 1916 and signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson, who had been hopeful for the bill's success.

Edward Keating

Robert Owen
Senator Owen

The Keating-Owen Act banned the sale of any product made by children under a certain age; for factories, shops, and canneries the age was 14, and for mines it was 16. For everyone else, no products could be sold from a place where children under 16 worked nights or more than 8 hours a day. The Keating-Owen Act never explicitly prohibited child labor as Congress didn't have the power to do that. The power Congress did have was to control what products were sold across state borders, and in an industrialized economy, that included almost all products. So, Congress decided that it could prohibit the sale of products made under certain conditions, and the President agreed.

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