Teaching Work: Resources for Labor Day

Thu 30 2012

Declared an official national holiday in 1894, the roots of Labor Day stretch back much further. Long before the Industrial Revolution and the rise of organized labor, colonists and Native peoples labored to provide for themselves and their families and to support their societies. U.S. citizens continue to work in many ways and at many jobs.

How has work changed over time? Take a look at our Labor Day spotlight page. We've gathered lesson plans, website reviews, teaching strategies, and more on American labor history. Using these resources, you and your students can ask questions about the nature of work and search for answers.

Need some questions to get started? For each particular time and place, ask:

  • Was work divided by gender? What tasks were associated with each gender? How strictly were these divisions followed? How have they changed over time?
    • Similarly, was work divided by age? What tasks were associated with different ages? How strictly were these divisions followed? How have they changed over time?
    • What did people consider "work"? What did the word mean? Were work and play distinct?
    • How were differing ideas of work addressed or resolved? Think about contact between Native peoples and colonists, or between groups of immigrants from different countries.
    • Why do people work? How were they compensated (if at all)?
    • How was work regulated? Did the people doing the work make the rules?
    • What skills, education, or background knowledge were required for various jobs?
    • Did people choose to do work? What might the consequences be if they did not work?

    There are many more questions to ask! Brainstorm with your students. Ask them what they think of as work. Do they like it? Why do they do it? What kinds of work do the adults in their lives do? They may be surprised at how much the idea of work has changed over time—and even how much it varies from person to person today.

About the Author

Lara Harmon is a Senior Research Associate for Teachinghistory.org. She received her BA from George Mason University.