Labor Day: The History, The Celebration, and the Mosaic Artworks
Labor Day is more than just a fun long weekend, the last big get-together of the summer, and the last day you can wear your straw hats – if you’re a hat-wearing sort of person. In all the road-tripping, cooking out, and pool parties, the original intent of this official holiday can get lost.
Let’s throw a quiz at you:
What was the first state to officially recognize Labor Day as a holiday? Was it:
- New York
The right answer is Oregon, in 1887! (But the first parade was in New York City, in 1882.) Here’s what it looked like.
Prior to the Knights of Labor, an early labor federation, setting up a parade to celebrate the various labor organizations, there were different individual days set aside. Each group had their own days throughout the year. After the success of the first parade, the head of the Central Labor Union in New York proposed one day for all laborers to be celebrated.
After some discussion, the first Monday of September was selected. The reasons were many: Good weather, a placement mid-way between Independence Day and Thanksgiving, and no competition from other big holidays. After Oregon jumping on the bandwagon early, the other states began to follow suit. Today, all of the United States (and Canada) joins together in celebrating hard work and the end of summer.
Celebrating Labor in Art
To follow this theme, let’s explore how the themes of labor were used in mosaic art pieces. There are some fine examples of public art that can be visited around the U.S.
This incredible mural is part of the AFL-CIO building in Washington, D.C. Done by artist Lumen M. Winter in 1956, was used as the artwork for the official Labor Day postage stamp a few months after the building was dedicated. You can see this in the lobby of the building, which is located at 815 16th St NW, close to the White House.
The quote on the stamp is the title of the mural. The quote is from Thomas Carlyle: “Labour is Life: from the inmost heart of the Worker rises his god-given Force, the sacred celestial Life-essence breathed into him by Almighty God; from his inmost heart awakens him to all nobleness; to all knowledge, ‘self-knowledge’ and much else, so soon as Work fitly begins.”
Winter was also commissioned to create another huge mural on another lobby wall of the same building in 1973. This piece, titled: “Labor Omnia Vincit” measures 17’ x 51’, and is made from marble, glass, and gold mosaic tiles.
An ambitious project in 1931 led to the installation of 23 tile mosaic murals in the Cincinnati Union Terminal in OH. Created by Winold Reiss, the immense project depicted workers in industry around the area, all modeled on real-life laborers.
They’re unusual in that they covered manufacturing processes that weren’t always shown in fine art. Reiss would actually visit the factory floors, snapping photos and using them for the mosaic artwork that was to be created.
Here, a worker at Ault & Wiborg Company, which manufactured paints, varnishes, and inks.
Reiss had a dynamic quality to his work that is not always seen in mosaic art. They’re filled with life and movement, and consistently show the workers, not the managers. Visiting the Terminal surrounded visitors with a sense of a city that was poised to lead the Midwest in industry. In this mural, workers pour molten metal at American Rolling Mill Co. in Middleton, Ohio.
The glass tiles ranged between nickel and dime-sized and were assembled into the murals at the site of the Union Terminal. Although they were true snapshots of the current times in 1932, their honest depictions of work wardrobes and machinery make them valuable pieces of cultural history, as well.
This mural depicted employees of Procter & Gamble cutting large slabs of soap into smaller Ivory Soap Bars.
The murals were in danger when the Union Terminal was slated for demolition in the 1970s. They were saved at the time by the work of concerned activists like Jerry Springer – yes, the famed talk show host – who lobbied to have them moved to safety. Today, the murals are located in two separate locations: The Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, and the Duke Energy Convention Center on Central Avenue in Cincinnati.
Today, the mosaic art is appreciated by a new generation of Cincinnati visitors and residents. Some have the delight of seeing actual relatives in the murals, as Weiss always used real-life models – many of whom have been identified in the years since.
The grand tradition of celebrating labor in mosaic wall art ;is still going strong. Inspired by influences like WPA art and artists like Winold Reiss, there are superb pieces of modern work going up in the U.S. and around the world.
Artists Matt Lynch and Curtis Goldstein undertook the same themes and applied modern technology to create their 2017 works. The suite of murals, titled Work/Surface, used laser-cut Formica high-pressure laminate, rather than glass tiles.
Each piece, measuring 90” x 90”, depicts a modern industry of the Cincinnati area, such as the Rookwood Pottery plant, shown here
The use of laminate supplied by the Formica company allowed the duo to incorporate a great deal of fine detail and custom patterns in their creations. Here, the subject of the mural is the GE Aviation factory.
Like Reiss, the artists visited factories and took hundreds of photos of modern workers doing their jobs. There’s a respect for the subjects of the murals that is firmly in line with the way labor has been portrayed in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Another artist who celebrates what Labor Day is all about is Owen Smith. You can see his work on the NY Subway – which is a not-so-secret source of incredible mosaic wall art inspiration if you’re visiting there.
Located at the 36th Street Station in Brooklyn, this mural depicts the daily life of workers commuting to their jobs.
Around the world, Labor Day is also celebrated, but as May Day. For contrast, let’s look at a few of the depictions that have been created in mosaic wall art in other countries.
This piece, located in Kazakhstan, depicts the harmony that exists within the working classes. As a Soviet Russian creation, it was shaded in more than a bit of propaganda for laborer rights.
In this old Soviet piece celebrating the worker, a building in Ulan-Ude, Republic of Buryatia depicts two central figures looking quite joyful. They’re surrounded by smaller vignettes that show agricultural, technological, transportation, healthcare, and factory laborers.
This eye-catching installation is on the walls of the Institute of Nuclear Research of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine in Kyiv.
Another mosaic art installation in Osh, Kyrgyzstan shows a group of workers from various industries.
Enjoying Labor Day
Labor Day is more than just an appreciation of everyone who works to make a living. It’s also the kick-off to the school year, a hint to get ready for Fall sporting events, and a day to relax. State and county fairs begin, and there’s a reminder that this could be the last chance to work just as hard at recreational activities.
Let’s look at some of the best depictions of what Labor Day celebrates, as far as the fun side of life. It’s perhaps a nice idea to add mosaic art to your home and garden that reminds you of those glorious summer days – even in the dead of winter.
Keep the memories of your lazy days on the water with you by installing a piece of mosaic art like this as a backsplash or wall display. The sun will keep shining just as brightly year-round.
A mosaic rug like this will remind you that better days are ahead, even when the school year starts, and the next vacation is just a distant date on your family calendar.
Or, remember your vacation with a themed tabletop design.
No matter what your profession, or how you choose to celebrate Labor Day, we wish you a wonderful time. We’re glad to share a little bit of the history, the use of the concept in fine mosaic art, and the enjoyment of what a carefully chosen piece of mosaic wall art can bring into your home. Happy Labor Day!