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Keating Owen Child Labor Act of 1916

Chad Rimbey, Christopher Muscato
  • Author
    Chad Rimbey

    Chad has taught EAL and History for over 10 years. He holds a M.A. in History from Binghamton University (SUNY) and a M.S. in TESOL from Wilkes University.

  • Instructor
    Christopher Muscato

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

Learn about the Keating-Owen Child Labor Act, the problems that it addressed, and its impact. Also, read about the Supreme Court's ruling against the act. Updated: 06/12/2022

Table of Contents


What is the Keating-Owen Child Labor Act of 1916?

The Keating-Owen Child Labor Act of 1916 represented a major step toward outlawing child labor in the United States and also contributed to a change in perceptions regarding the scope and role of the federal government. Although many New England states had child labor laws since the first half of the 1800s, the Keating-Owen Act was the first attempt by Congress to restrict the use of child labor nationwide. It was based on a draft proposal by Senator Albert Beveridge in 1906.

Addressing the exploitation of child labor was one of many reforms targeted during the Progressive Era. From about 1890 until the start of the Great Depression in 1929, progressives sought to improve American society as a whole. This was in response to the extreme wealth inequalities and abuses associated with the Gilded Age and the second industrial revolution which exploded following the Civil War. The Progressive Era coincided with the peak of the women's suffrage movement and efforts to ban alcohol. There were also numerous reforms designed to make the American political system more democratic and conserve the natural environment.

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  • 0:04 Child Labor
  • 0:52 Historical Context
  • 2:04 The Keating-Owen Act
  • 3:25 Repeal and Impact
  • 5:02 Lesson Summary
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The Child Labor Act of 1916: Background

Many progressives saw child labor as a great social ill that stained the fabric of American society. In this time of extreme inequality and rapid industrialization, social welfare programs and workplace regulations were non-existent. Wages were painfully low, and it was essential that every member of a family worked to earn an income. Factory and mill workers, including children, typically toiled for twelve hours or longer per day and for seven days per week. Serious injuries and chronic illnesses were common.

The rapid industrial expansion in the United States in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century occurred at the same time as the American population began to shift from rural areas to urban centers. Although child labor had always been a feature of farm life, this had taken place within the setting of the home and under the supervision of parents. The second industrial revolution on the other hand witnessed the emergence of children laboring in dangerous conditions outside of the home setting and not under the supervision of their caregivers. For most of these young laborers, playtime and schooling were unimaginable luxuries. Children and workers, in general, endured nonstop work until they were permanently disabled or dead.

Child Labor Reform During the Progressive Era

The Progressive Era was a time when reformers pushed for a broad range of initiatives aimed at improving American society. Goals included reducing racial inequality, granting women the right to vote, and engineering American politics to be less corrupt as well as more democratic. Although taken for granted today, direct primaries and the direct election of senators by popular vote originated in the Progressive Era. Purging the United States of child labor was one objective among many for the Progressives.

Efforts to end child labor in America started at the state level, but this proved challenging, and these efforts were resisted heavily in southern states. Repeated failures at the state level motivated progressive reformers to seek solutions at the federal level. However, in the early 20th century, the role of the federal government was far more limited than it has become today. Most constitutional scholars during the progressive period believed laws attempting to restrict child labor would be ruled unconstitutional.

In 1904, the National Child Labor Committee focused its work on collecting evidence and documenting the terrible conditions of child laborers in order to force the federal government to act. The reformer Lewis Hine took advantage of improvements in photography and a nascent mass media to capture the abuses of child labor which had largely remained unseen by the American public. In addition to his undercover photos, Hine conducted countless interviews with young laborers in order to push the federal government to act. However, it is important to understand that the accepted role of the federal government in the early years of the twentieth century was far more limited than what Americans have come to expect in recent years. Many constitutional scholars and academics at that time firmly believed that any federal law to regulate or ban child labor would be swiftly overturned as unconstitutional.

The History of the Keating-Owen Child Labor Act

At the dawn of the twentieth century, nearly two million children worked in manufacturing, agriculture, mines, stores, or on the streets. Most were under the age of fourteen. The majority were the children of poor immigrants and they endured harsh conditions day after day. Looking back, it may seem surprising there was not an immediate outpouring of empathy. Banning child labor was especially unpopular in the South, where it was framed as another attempt by northern states to exert control over southern states.

Although Progressives were at the peak of their power, the political climate in Congress in 1915-1916 lacked widespread support for the ban. President Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, had little sympathy for the movement to ban child labor, and he personally believed any law would quickly be thrown out by the courts. On the other hand, leading members of his party grew concerned about the lack of social reforms under Wilson and how that may impact upcoming elections. Chief Justice Evans even eventually endorsed the idea of banning child labor, and this helped sway Wilson's opinion. Ultimately, it was political expediency rather than a sincere concern about child labor that facilitated the passage of federal legislation.

The Passing of the Keating-Owen Child Labor Act

The Keating-Owen Act functioned as a tool to limit or restrict the use of child labor but without stating that child labor was illegal per se. It is named after two Democratic representatives, Edward Keating of Colorado and Robert Latham Owen of Oklahoma. It was strongly supported by progressive reformers as well as among northern and western states. However, it faced intense opposition from southern mill owners who were highly dependent upon child labor.

The act prohibited the shipment or delivery of goods and services made by workers under the age of fourteen in factories, canneries, and shops, as well as by workers under the age of sixteen in mines. It also stated that workers under the age of sixteen could only work between 6:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m. for a maximum of eight hours and no more than six days per week.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Was the Keating-Owen Act successful?

The Keating-Owen Act of 1916 was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court shortly after its passage. In this narrow sense, the law failed to achieve its objectives. However, it was successful in turning child labor into a national political issue. More importantly to the long-term historical development of the United States, the act greatly altered perceptions about the scope and role that the federal government should play in the lives of Americans. This set the stage for many later reforms, including child labor to, ultimately, be successful.

When did the U.S. ban child labor?

Although restrictions on the use of child labor were first implemented in some New England states beginning in the 1830s, it was not banned nationwide until a century later. Because the Keating-Owen Act was ruled unconstitutional, the United States did not have an effective ban or restriction on child labor until the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938.

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