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This Month in Business History

Founding of the Department of Labor

Historic American Buildings Survey, creator. [Original location of the] United States Department of Labor, Constitution Avenue between Twelfth and Fourteenth Streets, Washington, District of Columbia, DC. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The history of the Department of Labor doesn’t just begin on March 4, 1913 when President William Howard Taft, on his last day as President, signed into law (37 Stat. 736) the bill that created the Department of Labor as a cabinet level agency. Before there was a Department of Labor, there was the Bureau of Labor Statistics created in 1884 (and rolled into the new agency with this legislation) and the Department of Commerce and Labor created in 1903.

On his first day in office, President Woodrow Wilson appointed William B. Wilson to be the agency's first Secretary. The agency quickly grew, and in 1920, the Women's Bureau was created with Mary Anderson becoming its first leader. Women played prominent roles in the history of the agency. The most well-known was Frances Perkins who was appointed secretary in March 1933 by President Franklin Roosevelt. Perkins served until 1945 and was not only the first woman to head the agency, but was the first female to become a cabinet secretary.

Since the creation of the Department, Congress has passed a number of laws that resulted in the expansion of the agency’s mission. These include but aren’t limited to: Fair Labor Standards Act; Occupational Safety and Health Act; Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA); Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act; Family and Medical Leave Act; etc. Today, the agency's mission is:

To foster, promote, and develop the welfare of the wage earners, job seekers, and retirees of the United States; improve working conditions; advance opportunities for profitable employment; and assure work-related benefits and rights.1

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  1. About Us, Department of Labor Accessed: 7/1/2022. Back to text