The mural was commissioned in 1929 by Alvin Saunders Johnson, director of The New School for Social Research in New York City, for the school's boardroom. Benton was not offered any payment beyond material costs. Instead, he saw the work as an opportunity to make a name for himself and thereby get more commissions in the future. The subjects were based on Benton's extensive travels in the United States. Benton said about the work: "Every detail of every picture is a thing I myself have seen and known. Every head is a real person drawn from life. " The mural was painted with egg tempera on linen canvases.
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