A federal holiday since 1894, Labor Day — a celebration of the American labor movement and the social and economic achievements of workers — was first proposed as a holiday in 1882 by Matthew Maguire, a machinist who served as secretary of a New York and New Jersey trade union.
In the 1930s, Frank Hartley Anderson, a Boston-born architect and artist, who devoted himself to capturing scenes of everyday life in Birmingham, made a number of works depicting industry and labor, including this circa-1934 woodcut print showing women toiling in a local laundry. Anderson’s interest in laborers and industrial subjects might be explained by an essay he once wrote on “Industrial Beauty,” in which he contended, “Beauty is comparative. The beauty of women, or pictures, is one kind. There is a beauty in strength, and in usefulness.” In light of these words, Anderson’s intention may have been to ennoble the laundresses depicted in his work, by calling attention to their strength and industriousness.
The work is presently on view in the exhibition Black Like Who?: Exploring Race and Representation at the Birmingham Museum of Art, open now through November 1, 2015.