Any student of American history knows that the 1920s were marked by optimism and economic strength. As Babe Ruth batted his way into baseball history, Charlie Chaplin’s antics on the big screen entertained young and old alike, and the Spirit of St. Louis soared across the Atlantic, Americans enjoyed post-war peace and prosperity.
This era of affluence was built by a changing and increasingly skilled American workforce. For the first time, more people lived in cities than on farms, and the nature of their work shifted accordingly. The U.S. Department of Labor – just 7 years old when the 1920s roared in – continued to grow in its mission of advancing employment opportunities, and ensuring safe and fair workplaces for America’s working men and women.
In fact, women were a major departmental focus in the 1920s. The same year women gained a voice at the voting booth, they gained a voice in the workplace through the department’s Women’s Bureau, which was created in 1920 to promote the welfare of wage-earning women. Under the leadership of its first director, Mary Anderson, the bureau published groundbreaking reports on conditions for women in a range of industries. More than 90 years later, it still advocates for women’s equality and economic security.
Additionally, with prosperity came increased trade. This meant busy ports and railways – and an upsurge in labor-management conflicts, some of which ended in legislation. In 1926, Congress passed the Railway Labor Act to mend tension between rail laborers and management. In 1927, it passed the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act, which the department still administers today to support waterfront workers who are injured or become ill on the job.
From 1921 to 1930, the department was led by James J. Davis, who was appointed by President Warren Harding as the second secretary of labor. After immigrating from Wales as a child, Davis had apprenticed as a puddler’s assistant in a Pennsylvania steel mill, earning the nickname “Puddler Jim.” As labor secretary, he supported changing immigration quotas, established the U.S. Border Patrol and lobbied for the steel industry to shorten its workday. After leaving the department, he went on to serve in the Senate and sponsored the Davis-Bacon Act, which to this day requires that workers on public works projects be paid local prevailing wages.
The impact of the department’s work during the 1920s is still felt by many today. Of course, the decade that started with a boom ended with a bust when the nation plunged into the Great Depression in October 1929. Going forward, the department would have to consider new strategies for meeting the changing needs of the American workforce.
Carl Fillichio heads the Labor Department’s Office of Public Affairs and serves as the chair of the department’s centennial. This post is one in a series in which he explores the department’s impact over the past 100 years. Click here to read the previous post about the 1910s.