Noteworthy

National Park Service Theme Study in American Labor History

Robin F. Bachin and James R. Grossman, May 1994

In cooperation with the National Park Service, the Newberry Library is undertaking a theme study in American labor history. The purpose of this study is to generate National Historic Landmark nominations for sites significant to labor history in the United States. The result of the study will be the nomination of twenty sites for possible designation as National Historic Landmarks by the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior. Through this study we hope to provide a forum for educating the public about the significance of labor in shaping American history.

The preservation and interpretation of historic sites provides many Americans with their most tangible—and accessible—encounter with history education. Unlike books and classrooms, sites (and museums) constitute a context in which families learn history together, in which parents interpret the past to their children, who in turn frame questions in terms of the material readily at hand at the site. Indeed, for many people it is the fact of an artifact's display or a site's preservation that constitutes a given topic as history. Thus at the most basic level, a program to identify labor history sites is essential to increasing public awareness that labor is central to our national history. The very preservation of a mine, kitchen, slave cabin, or factory because of its association with working people sends a message. Even more explicit is the legitimation implied by the preservation and recognition of a union hall, a tavern, or a church in which a group of workers first met to organize, or the site of a strike.

Until a generation ago, American labor history as a field was closely tied to the discipline of economics, oriented toward labor markets, unions, collective bargaining, labor legislation, and other institutional factors. Yet at no time in our history has a majority of the work force been organized. Labor historians began paying increased attention to unorganized workers in the 1960s; at the same time they began to search for the voices of workers to complement the more accessible perspectives of leaders and institutions. A simultaneous increase in interest in general among historians in women, African Americans, and voluntary immigrants from around the globe had especially profound implications for labor history because of their disproportionate representation in the working class.

To learn more about people once considered historically "inarticulate" (if not insignificant), labor historians began shifting their focus from the union hall to the workplace, the community, and subsequently the home. We broadened our definition of what constituted work, learned how to conceptualize the relationship between work process and culture, and became more aware of the centrality of the family economy to working-class life. Most recently, labor historians have developed increasingly sophisticated conceptual tools for integrating race and gender into our understanding of the nature of working-class life. Recent research also has returned to a focus on institutional development, with historians feeding the insights of "the new social history" into a better understanding and broader awareness of organization and its dynamics.

The challenge of this project is to synthesize this extraordinary wealth of scholarship in such a way as to structure a comprehensive compilation and evaluation of sites. This challenge includes as well the complementary process of matching the historical insight provided by this new scholarship with recent developments in material culture studies, architectural history, and public history. Our guiding principle in this regard will emphasize the role of landmarks in history education: How do sites help visitors and local residents to better appreciate and understand the role of labor in American history, or the historical experience of work and workers?

We are contacting state historical societies, labor organizations, state preservation officers, and labor scholars in order to solicit suggestions for potential sites. We would like your help in identifying these sites so that we may create as broad a base as possible in the initial stages of the project.

All sites that reach the final nomination stage must meet the National Park Service criteria for National Historic Landmarks, and also demonstrate national labor history significance. The NPS criteria state that the site must be associated with events or individuals that made contributions to American history that are of exceptional national value. In addition, the site or structure must be representative of the location, design, setting, materials, and workmanship at the time of historical significance. Sites which have been significantly altered, moved, or inadequately maintained are not eligible for national landmark status.

In order to determine national labor history significance, we are looking for sites that fit the following categories:

  1. Work processes—sites which illustrate the changing nature of the work process, such as the rise of assembly-line production, the mechanization of agriculture, and changes in household labor.
  2. Events—sites associated with nationally significant events in labor history, such as strikes or lockouts.
  3. People—sites affiliated with significant individuals in labor history, such as labor leaders.
  4. Leisure establishments—sites which played a central role in the recreational and leisure activities of workers, such as amusement parks or theaters.
  5. Labor education—sites associated with working-class education.
  6. Workers' communities.
  7. Labor organizing—sites associated with union organizing and political activities, such as meeting places and union halls.

We invite suggestions of sites that fit within each of these categories. Suggestions should include information that we could use in the evaluation process, including a brief description of the site and bibliographic references. We will use this information as we consider each site for national landmark designation.

For further information, contact Robin F. Bachin and James Grossman, Family and Community History Center, 60 West Walton Street, Chicago, Illinois 60610. (312) 943-9090.