Americans at Work - National Historic Landmark Theme Study on Labor History

A theme study cover that is black with the NPS arrowhead logo and text, the title, "Labor History in the United States. Two photos, one above the other. The top image is a mural showing various scenes of labor history. The bottom is of people on strike.

The history of work and working people is interwoven through the stories of all America’s most significant places. Labor History in the United States, a theme study released in June 2022 by the National Historic Landmarks (NHL) Program, highlights the many stories of Americans at work through current scholarship on labor history and nationally significant places. It includes thematic chapters focusing on work in agriculture, extraction industries like mining or lumbering, manufacturing, transportation, and the service sector. While labor organizing is a theme throughout, the focus on occupational groups highlights up-to-date research on a wide variety of working people: union and non-union, native and foreign-born, male and female, White and Black, northern and southern, and those of various religious affiliations.

Currently, 52 properties have been designated NHLs specifically for various aspects of labor history. In addition to those NHLs, the theme study includes a study list of 20 possible new NHLs as well as recommendations for adding labor history updates into the documentation for 32 existing ones.

Already designated labor history NHLs include some unexpected sites such as renowned Mexican painter Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts, designated in 2013. Partially sponsored by the Ford Motor Company, this series of paintings showcases the artist’s approach to public art and his interpretation of the relationship between machines and male workers, both White and Black, and workers and management.

The interior walls of a white marble building with a skylight and arched windows, are painted with murals of blues, greens, and browns, representing labor history.
Detroit industry murals by Diego Rivera at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

NPS Photo/NHL Program

Other sites long associated with the history of unions and labor organizing also are well represented, such as The Forty Acres NHL, designated in 2008 and associated with César Chávez and the United Farm Workers of America, or Union Square NHL in New York, designated in 1998 for its prominent role in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century pro-labor demonstrations and marches.

Labor History in the United States also expands the themes of labor history beyond organizing and work to include topics like migration, community life, recreation, and education to shed significant light on the social and cultural histories of workers and the communities that developed in and around places of production. Doing so generates greater social inclusivity in the designation and interpretation of labor and working-class properties in the United States. Beyond discussion of potential new labor history National Historic Landmarks, the context here and in other NHL theme studies can inform National Register of Historic Places nominations or other historical studies. The complete accessible PDF is available for download on the National Historic Landmarks Program website – Recent Theme Studies.

Last updated: July 18, 2022