Monday, September 6, 2010

Labor Day

Labor Day was first celebrated in the United States on Tuesday, September 15, 1882, in New York City, and included a parade of tens of thousands of workers carrying signs and banners, then a picnic, and ended with a grand fireworks display. (Rumor has it that the celebration also included “an abundance of cigars and Lager beer kegs…mounted in every conceivable place.”) It was organized by the Central Labor Union. In 1885 and 1886, it became a municipal holiday in various cities, and in 1887 it became a state holiday in Oregon, Colorado, Massachusetts, and New Jersey. By 1894, 23 other states also honored the holiday and President Grover Cleveland declared it a National Holiday that year. Cleveland and Congress were eager to appease the public following the death of more than a dozen workers during riots resulting from a Pullman Car employee strike and corresponding boycott of Pullman by the American Railroad Union. The holiday is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers and serves as a tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity and well-being of our country.

Union Square, NYC, Labor Day Parade, 1882

The first proposal of the holiday suggested a street parade demonstrating the “strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations”, followed by a festival for the workers and their families. Over the years, the holiday has evolved from a celebration of the working class into a general end-of-summer fling involving family barbeques and beachgoing.

The first American Labor Day holiday was likely inspired by our neighbors to the north. Canada began celebrating Labor Day in 1872, with a parade in support of a strike against the current 58-hour workweek. Twenty-four union leaders who organized the event were subsequently arrested under anti-union laws. Many European countries celebrate a similar holiday (International Workers Day) on May 1st; the United States organizers likely avoided that date in order to avoid any connection with the originally Communist-based holiday.
A modern Communist Labor Day celebration

Today, most people associate Labor Day with the end of summer and the start of the school year more than anything to do with actual labor. For many years, it has been considered the end of the summer fashion season and brought with it a prohibition on wearing white. The origin of the “no white” rule may be based in the tradition of the upper class wearing white, lightweight summer clothing at their luxurious summer homes, as opposed to the darker work clothes of those unfortunates for whom summer was not so leisurely.

A typical summer outfit for the wealthy of that time

Given the current economic climate in the U.S., I suspect that many Americans who have never spent any time on Labor Day seriously thinking about labor or their working conditions (other than to be thankful for a day off) may be spending this year’s holiday being very thankful for a job and a steady paycheck. I know I am feeling very thankful that my job, although it lacks a paycheck, is the most rewarding and satisfying labor I’ve ever done.


“What Is Labor Day?”, Oskar Stevens in Other,
“The History of Labor Day”, U.S. Department of Labor,
“The Origin and History of Labor Day”, Elizabeth Walling, Associated Content,
“Labor Day”,
“Labor Day History: 11 Facts You Need to Know”, Nate Hindman & Craig Kanally, The Huffington Post,

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