A Brief History
September 1, 2016 by Mark Dye
The first Labor Day parade in New York City, 1882. (Source)
In many ways, Labor Day is a forgotten holiday—it’s sandwiched in between the Fourth of July and the fall holiday season, and has mainly been used in modern times to signify the end of summer. In reality, it’s a holiday American workers earned by being the backbone of our nation, helping to build it into the world power it is today.
What is recognized as the very first Labor Day was not held on a Monday (as it is now), but actually a Tuesday—Sept. 5, 1882. The Central Labor Union led the effort, which included a parade in New York City and, apparently, a small issue with the band that was to lead the parade. Other cities were encouraged to join in the “workingman’s holiday” in the following years. This made sense, as there had been tremendous growth of labor unions throughout the nation, particularly in the northern industrial areas.
By 1885-1886, several municipalities established special days to honor the contributions of their local tradesmen, craftsmen, and other workers, and by 1894, some 23 states had special holidays dedicated to workers. Seeing that there was a push, Congress chose to designate the first Monday in September as a federal holiday to honor labor.
Who started it?
Just who prompted all of this in the first place has been a matter of some debate. According the Department of Labor:
Some records show that Peter J. McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and a cofounder of the American Federation of Labor, was first in suggesting a day to honor those "who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold."
But Peter McGuire's place in Labor Day history has not gone unchallenged.
Many believe that Matthew Maguire, a machinist, not Peter McGuire, founded the holiday. Recent research seems to support the contention that Matthew Maguire, later the secretary of Local 344 of the International Association of Machinists in Paterson, N.J., proposed the holiday in 1882 while serving as secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York. What is clear is that the Central Labor Union adopted a Labor Day proposal and appointed a committee to plan a demonstration and picnic.
Regardless of who is the “father” of the holiday, the spirit was the same for both men: to have a special day set aside to honor the American worker.
As our economy has moved from industrial production to service-oriented, the celebration of Labor Day has also changed, becoming a way to have one last summer fling before the weather changes for most. There are barbecues, auto races, and the last dip in the pool before it’s shutdown for the year. (There are also few parades, as it’s much more difficult to shut down roads in today’s car-based society than it was in yesterday’s horse-and-carriage-based society.)
But while its historical significance has lessened through the years, it’s still a time to enjoy the fruits of our nation’s labor. So this weekend, make sure to kick your feet up (but not while wearing white shoes, which should go in the closet until Memorial Day), maybe grab a nice cold beverage, and toast the American worker.