Child Labor in the 1910s, 1910-1919

Source Database: DISCovering U.S. History

Exploited Resource

When the United States was a nation of farms, shops, and small mills, the use of children as a means of supplementing a family's income was a practice so common that it attracted little notice and even less concern. The nation's rapid and dramatic transformation into an increasingly industrialized society, however, changed the environment in which children labored and the conditions to which they were regularly exposed. At the same time, changes were taking place in the way children and the childhood years were perceived. More and more Americans began to regard children as a national resource deserving of society's protection and guidance. Reformers such as Jacob Riis, author of The Children of the Tenements (1903), and George Creel, who with the assistance of Denver's juvenile court judge, Ben Lindsey, wrote Children In Bondage in 1913, helped improve and broaden the public's awareness of the conditions under which many of the nation's poor children were reared. Exhibitions of photographs of children employed in all sorts of economic pursuits, including those considered among the most dangerous and grueling, proved equally successful in pricking the public's conscience. In sharp contrast to these images of child workers worn down by the toil of their labor were the children of the middle class, who led quite different lives and whose progress was measured not in industrial output, but in ways increasingly seen as being vital to their development as productive citizens.

Early Regulatory Efforts

In the 1880s a number of states had enacted statutes placing restrictions on the use of child labor. These laws had drawn support from a cross-section of the public, including associations of tradesmen who feared that the growing use of child labor threatened their wages and job security. The exploitation of children as a ready and cheap source of labor, however, continued, and remained a source of concern well into the next century. Conditions in the canning industry, the glass industry (where boys were hired to mold glass for hours on end before blistering-hot furnaces), in anthracite mining (which used trapper and breaker boys to sort, by hand, the mined coal), and in the textile industry began to attract considerable attention from reformers after 1900. In the South, the threefold increase in the number of child laborers in the decade ending in 1900 aroused public sentiment for child labor laws and led to the creation of the Southern States National Child Labor Committee. Elsewhere, interest in improving the legislation that affected children and its enforcement resulted in the formation in 1904 of the National Child Labor Committee. This committee, later chartered by Congress to promote the welfare of America's working children, investigated conditions in a number of states; it also served as a model for many local child labor committees, who, through mass mailings and intensive lobbying, were successful in securing legislation which placed restrictions on the use of child labor. It soon became apparent, however, that the effort to secure passage of legislation on a state-by-state basis was proving far less effective than expected. In 1910 it was estimated that there were still in excess of two million children employed in an industrial setting.

Absence of Uniformity

The problem stemmed from the fact that there was no uniformity among the child labor laws passed by the various states. Those states prepared to regulate the practice risked finding themselves in an unfavorable competitive position, since under the Constitution they were unable to protect their own markets or industries by excluding goods from states which accommodated the employment of children for cheaper wages. The defeat of Senator Albert Beveridge's effort to pass the first national anti-child labor bill in 1907 convinced many child advocates that the solution to the problem lay in a more aggressive program of education and cooperative effort among the states. In 1911 the United States Commission on Uniform Laws was encouraged to adopt a uniform child labor law, consisting of fifty sections and establishing minimum standards respecting the employment of children in certain industries and in work considered hazardous to their health. The following year, Congress enacted the Children's Bureau Bill which created a new office within the Department of Labor, which was to serve as a resource to those local governments and state legislatures interested in regulating the practice of employing children in the workplace. By 1915 it had become clear that this approach lacked the strength to overcome the resistance and influence of those who employed children in their mines and factories. These disparities among the laws of the different states were widely condemned as irrational and unjust and resulted in even louder and more pressing demands for federal intervention.

Owen-Keating Bill

With the aid of William Draper Lewis, dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, a bill was drafted and introduced in the House by A. Mitchell Palmer (D-Pa.), the future attorney general, and in the Senate by Robert L. Owen (D-Ok.). The proposal moved quickly through the House, but, lacking the support of the president with deep reservations about the federal government's jurisdiction in such matters, made no progress in the Senate. The following year the bill was reintroduced by Owen in the Senate and Edward Keating, Democrat of Colorado, in the House, where it again passed without any difficulty. On this occasion, however, President Wilson, fearful of losing the political initiative to a newly reunited Republican party, and recognizing that such legislation had proved to be one of the more popular planks in his party's platform, used his influence in the Senate to secure its passage. Members of both parties hailed the law as a measure of the nation's social and economic progress, a symbol of its inherent decency and humanitarian tendency. In actuality, the Keating Owen Act did little more than prohibit shipment in interstate commerce of goods manufactured or processed by child labor. The act forbade the shipment between the states or in foreign commerce of any minerals where, within thirty days prior to such shipment, children sixteen years old or younger had been employed. It also forbade the shipment of any goods produced in factories which, within thirty days prior to shipment, had employed children younger than fourteen years old, or where children between fourteen and sixteen years of age had worked more than eight hours a day or six days a week.

Question of Constitutionality

No sooner had the act been passed than opposition to its enforcement appeared. Its first test came when Junius Parker, formerly the general counsel of the American Tobacco Company, was retained to represent Roland Dagenhart, who, together with his two children, ages thirteen and fifteen, was employed by the Fidelity Manufacturing Company in Charlotte, North Carolina. Following his employer's announcement that it intended to abide by the provisions of the Keating Owen Act, Dagenhart sued to enjoin the company and the government from complying with and enforcing the act. Dagenhart was successful in obtaining his injunction and the matter was taken up on appeal. The government's position in argument before the Supreme Court was prepared under the personal direction of Solicitor General John Davis, who also argued the case. Describing the social, economic, and medical costs associated with the employment of children in the workplace, Davis argued that the public deplored child labor locally, but had been helpless to regulate it, because the problem was essentially national in scope. The states, he explained, were not free to take whatever action they might choose because they were united under a Constitution providing for and protecting a national market. The problem, he insisted, would require a solution of broad application. Justice William R. Day, however, writing for the majority of the justices, concluded otherwise. There was nothing intrinsically harmful about the goods shipped in interstate commerce, he noted. On the contrary, the objections which had been raised concerned only the manner in which the goods were being produced. Under the Tenth Amendment, Congress had no authority to control the conditions of production in the individual states; that was exclusively a matter of concern for the states. Writing in dissent, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes challenged the validity of the distinction Justice Day had made between the products of child labor and any other goods shipped in interstate commerce. Had not the Court recently upheld the right of Congress to prohibit the use of commerce for evil or immoral purposes? Holmes asked. For him, the Court's decision was based not on solid reasoning and precedent, but on its reluctance to extend federal power beyond those limits within which it had traditionally been confined.

Stunned Nation Reacts

The Court's ruling took the public by complete surprise. It did not, however, diminish its support for the objectives of the Keating Owen Act. The New York Times concluded that child labor, like the sale of alcoholic beverages, might better be left to the control of the local authorities; but others regarded the decision as a blow to justice and thus an aberration. Clearly, the Court remained unconvinced that child labor was in itself a social evil. Congress reacted angrily, acting, only months after the opinion had been issued, to amend the Revenue Bill of 1919 to include a prohibitive tax on the products of child labor, a provision later ruled invalid by the child labor tax case of 1922 (Bailey v. Drexel Furniture Company). During the First World War, the War Labor Policy Board, under the direction of Felix Frankfurter, inserted a clause in all federal contracts of the time making the provisions of the Keating Owen Act mandatory for anyone selling equipment and other war material to the government. Before long, advocates of child labor reform discovered yet another alternative by which to achieve the implementation of a national policy restricting child labor--the amendment of the Constitution itself. In 1924 a proposed amendment was submitted to the states for consideration, but was never ratified by the requisite number. Once again, conditions had begun to change. The introduction of new technologies and innovative manufacturing techniques encouraged the employment of better motivated and more highly educated workers. Hostility toward child labor continued to grow, but the passage of higher state mandatory educational requirements and vigorous enforcement of truancy laws made employing children increasingly burdensome and uncertain. The 1920 census reflected this situation by recording a decline in child labor, a decline that would continue into the 1930s with the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which established minimum wage and hour standards nationwide, discouraging the employment of minors. By setting minimum wages, it decreased incentives to hire children.



  • The Outlook. 29 January 1910, 231-233; 21 October 1911, 401-402; 27 September 1913, 151;
  • Robert Schnayerson, The Illustrated History of The Supreme Court of the United States (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1986);
  • John E. Semonche, Charting the Future: The Supreme Court Responds To a Changing Society, 1890-1920 (Westport: Greenwood Press, Inc., 1978).

Source Citation: "Child Labor in the 1910s, 1910-1919." DISCovering U.S. History. Gale Research, 1997. Reproduced in History Resource Center. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group.

Document Number: BT2104240671


Gale Group Home Page
Copyright and Terms of use