At the turn of the twentieth century, child labor was commonplace in American industry and farming. But social reformers sought to eliminate the practice or institute new protections for young children.
In 1916, Congress passed a law prohibiting goods produced by child labor from being sold in interstate commerce. In the case of Hammer v. Dagenhart, 247 U.S. 251 (1918), a cotton-mill owner who employed his two sons at the mill sued to challenge the law, arguing that Congress lacked power under the Commerce Clause to pass it.
After a district court concluded that Congress did not have the power to regulate child labor, which was a purely local matter, the case was appealed directly to the United States Supreme Court. The issue for the Court was whether Congress could regulate the sale of goods produced by child labor after those goods had been placed into the stream of interstate commerce.
Ultimately, a sharply divided Court struck down the law, concluding that Congress had improperly used interstate commerce as a hook with which to regulate purely intrastate production and manufacture. In so doing, the Supreme Court sharply limited Congress’s power to regulate the conditions of production, if only temporarily.
The case was overturned in 1941.
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