Today, Labor Day weekend is associated with the end of summer–the end of the official tourist season. Historically, Labor Day was to honor the American workforce.
Daily labor in American society during the latter part of the 1800s, early 1900s, meant working seven days a week, often 12 hours a day. There were no benefits as most of the U.S. working force is familiar with today. Men, women and children shouldered the tasks of a growing industrial nation.
Officially, Labor (Labour) Day is the first Monday in September. Attached to the last weekend in August made/makes for a three day weekend for most workers in the U.S. The spirit behind the holiday was to recognize all the steadfast contributions of the American workforce to the majesty of the U.S.
Labor Day Movement
The Central Labor Union of New York proposed a holiday for workers. The first Labor Day holiday was held September 5, 1882–another was held September 5, 1883. For the year 1884, it was proposed and held that Labor Day would be celebrated the first Monday in September. The Central Labor Union of New York networked with other developing unions through out the country for this observance.
Municipal laws recognizing Labor Day began springing up. The early states to adopt the celebration of Labor Day included: Oregon, Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Conneticut, Nebraska and Pennsylvania. Then on June 28, 1894, the U.S. Congress made Labor Day, the first Monday in September an official, Federally recognized, American holdiay.
Founders of Labor Day
Two people are noted for the establishment of this holiday. One is Peter McGuire, who generally is given the status of the original catalyst, the other, Matthew Maguire. Both were union men.
Peter J. McGuire (1852-1906), a passionate advocate for the recognition of workers, entered the workforce at the age of 11. When his father left to fight for the Union (Civil War), Peter shined shoes and sold newspapers (boys who sold newspapers were called, “newsies”) to support his Irish family.
At the age of 15 he became apprenticed as a piano maker and worked tirelessy to convince individual unions that a nationally recognized union was possible and necessary. He not only rallied for a nationally recognized union, but an internationally recognized union (May Day celebration).
His history is exceedingly colorful. Peter was known for organizing and holding public protests on behalf of the worker.
It is believed, also, that Matthew Maguire (1855-1917), then secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York in 1882 proposed the Labor Day holiday. The New Jersey Historical Society in Newark, New Jersey (website), contends that this man was the founder of the holiday. Records show that he also was a diligent, passionate advocate for the American worker.
First Labor Day Celebration
A parade of about 10,000 workers marched from City Hall (New York City) to Union Square for the first Labor Day celebration. Speeches lauding the American workforce along with family picnic lunches, dancing, ethnic music (Irish and German) and fireworks marked the celebration. Participants sacrificed a day’s wage. It was not, as it is today, a paid holiday.
- U.S. Department of Labor website.
- No author, “First Celebration of Labor” 9/3/2001., The New York Times, September 2, 2008.
- Lewis Wickes Hine collection, “Skeeter’s Branch Newsies: 1910”, Shorpy 100-Year-Old Photo Blog