The History of Labor Day

Labor Day is celebrated on the first Monday of every September. It is a reminder of the hard-work and diligence of American workers who made and continue to make the United States of America one of the strongest countries in the world. This yearly tribute is meant to celebrate the prosperity and well-being of America.

What was the first Labor Day like?

The first celebration of Labor Day took place on September 5, 1882. New York City hosted a celebration with the help of the Central Labor Union, which had the express goal of showing “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations.”

But historians paint the picture of the first Labor Day in America being a festive one.

The event started with a gathering around City Hall and Broadway as spectators were looking for the best place to watch the festivities. Since this was a new event in the nation’s history, police were on-call, in case riots erupted during the celebration. Loads of police officers on horseback and some carrying clubs were set in place at 9 a.m. to keep watch on the crowds. Tensions lowered by the time the parade started an hour later, but there was one problem—the parade needed music, and there was no band there to play. Luckily, a ferry from New Jersey arrived, bringing with it about 200 marchers from the Jewelers Union of Newark Two. The group had a band, and were able to supply a tune.

As the parade took form, over 700 men marched in the first three divisions, and the total number of marchers reached somewhere between10,000 to 20,000 men and women. The parade extended through the southern part of Manhattan, while people continued to flock to the event. By the time the parade ended at noon, many attendees walked to Wendel’s Elm Park for a picnic, stocked with alcohol and cigars.

The picnic ran from 1 to 9 p.m., and the total count of union members in attendance ballooned to 25,000 men plus their families. The celebration that could have been a flop ended up setting the standard for Labor Day as we know it today.

How did it continue?

The Central Labor Union continued the tradition the next year on September 5th, and pushed to make it a yearly event in New York City and in other cities across the United States. The “workingmen’s holiday” spread in popularity among other working organizations, and many labor unions followed on the coattails of the Central Labor Union.

As the holiday progressed year-to-year, increasing in size and stature, speeches were given by well-known dignitaries to emphasize the importance of American workers. Even after Labor Day became a national holiday, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) created Labor Day Sunday, which they used to educate workers on new labor movements, as well as give workers a place to worship God together.

When was Labor Day legislation written?

In 1887, the state of New York introduced a Labor Day bill, but Oregon was actually the first to pass one that very same year, making Labor Day an official state holiday on February 27th. States like New York, New Jersey, Colorado, and Massachusetts quickly followed suit by passing bills of their own.

By the end of 1893, 26 more states made Labor Day an official holiday, including Pennsylvania. This prompted Congress to make Labor Day a national holiday in June of 1893. Every first Monday in the month of September would be the day to celebrate American workers.

Who influenced Labor Day?

There is a lot of debate as to who proposed Labor Day in the first place, but, records show that a few men are to thank for this special day.

Peter J. McGuire suggested that people should be honored who “have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.” McGuire, founder of the American Federation of Labor and secretary for the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, was one of two men credited for the holiday.

The other was Matthew Maguire. Maguire, whose lifetime professions included being a machinist, the secretary for the International Association of Machinists, and a secretary for the Central Labor Union of New York, presented Labor Day as an idea in 1882.

But no matter which of the men had the idea first, the Central Labor Union took the idea to heart and planned a picnic for the public to celebrate.

Labor Day in Silverton, Colorado - 1940
Labor Day in Silverton, Colorado - 1940

How Different States Celebrate Labor Day

States across America celebrate Labor Day differently. For example, in the state of Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh puts on the Pennsylvania Arts and Crafts Labor Day Festival at the Westmoreland County Fairgrounds. For 4 days, this festival has vendors who sell ceramics, jewelry, and many other crafts and goodies.

The state of Utah celebrates Labor Day through an extended weekend too. Concerts take place all over the Wasatch Front, allowing people to enjoy great musical artists who come into town. Kid-friendly attractions are perfect for families of all sizes.

It’s different in every state, but for the most part, the same general principles guide each celebration.

First Labor Day Parade in New York City
First Labor Day Parade in New York City

How People Celebrate Labor Day in America

Generally, people celebrate Labor Day with summer activities—vacation, grilling out, boating, hitting the beach, fireworks, and more. It’s seen in many places as the last weekend for summer weather, a time to relax and spend time with family and friends. Since it’s a national holiday, most people have the day off from work to enjoy Labor Day festivities.

Ultimately, Labor Day has changed over the years, but it is still a day off to celebrate the workers that keep our nation running. The reason for America’s prosperity stems from the workers who labored to build the nation as we know it. America continues to grow because of its the leadership and strength of its workers.