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A Short History of America’s First Labor Day Celebration

Most Americans associate Labor Day with the end of summer. But the holiday was originally a form of worker activism during a period of rapid industrialization. Solidarity, not barbecue, was the buzzword back then.

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Labor Day parades celebrating workers’ rights continued into the 20th century. Here, members of the Women’s Auxiliary Typographical Union participated in a 1909 Labor Day parade in New York City.
(Everett Collection/Shutterstock)
On the first Monday of September, Americans celebrate Labor Day by attending barbecues and other outdoor festivities. With the holiday comes cooler weather, a return to school, and (according to sartorial rules) the end of wearing white.

But the history of the holiday has nothing to do with fashion or the changing of seasons. Nearly 140 years ago, Labor Day was a call to action by workers’ unions to improve 19th-century labor conditions.

The first Labor Day was celebrated on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 1882, in New York City. The idea was proposed by the Central Labor Union (CLU), a consortium of labor unions within New York and New Jersey that fought against low wages, unfair hours, unsafe working environments and child labor. The CLU wanted to organize a street parade to celebrate labor organizations and draw awareness to workers’ rights.

This was not the first celebration honoring trade workers. The concept dates back to the early 19th century, when laborers would hold picnics and other special events to advocate for workers’ rights and address concerns.

By the late 1800s, with more Americans than ever participating in the industrial workforce, laborers began to organize in greater numbers. Workers formed national labor unions, including the Knights of Labor and later the American Federation of Labor.

With this national labor movement in full swing by the 1880s, regional labor unions like the CLU felt empowered to organize a large labor rights celebration.

The 1882 event began with a march in Manhattan from City Hall to Union Square. According to local newspapers, 10,000 to 20,000 workers from various trade organizations participated in the parade, including unions representing jewelers, painters, dock builders, cigar-makers and typographers.

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An article about the first Labor Day celebration, published in The Sun on September 6, 1882. According to the article, in the parade marched men (and some women) “on horseback, men wearing regalia, men with society aprons, and men with flags, musical instruments, badges, and all the other paraphernalia of a procession.”
Many participants held signs advocating for workers’ rights, such as “Eight hours a legal day’s work,” “Labor must use the ballot” and “To the workers should belong the wealth.” As they marched, bands performed songs such as “When I First Put My Uniform On.”

Local papers described seamstresses and other laborers opening their windows along the parade route, waving handkerchiefs and cheering in solidarity with the marchers.

The day concluded with festivities in Elm Park. Between 20,000 and 50,000 workers and their families spent the afternoon enjoying food and drink, along with live music and dancing.

While the event did include fun and festivities, the holiday was also a form of political action. The CLU deliberately chose to hold the parade on a workday so that those who participated could give up a day’s pay in symbolic support for improved working conditions and fairer wages.

The CLU saw the day as a success and planned to celebrate what they called “the workingman’s holiday” again the following year. Other cities began to hold their own versions of the celebration, prompting some states to make at an official holiday. Oregon was the first state to make Labor Day a holiday in 1887 (although a proposal went to the New York Legislature first). By 1894, 26 more states had adopted the holiday, and in the same year President Grover Cleveland made Labor Day a federal holiday to be held on the first Monday in September of each year.

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A September 1882 issue of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper included this illustration of the original Labor Day parade. The caption calls the event a “Grand demonstration of workingmen” and depicts “the procession passing the reviewing stand at Union Square.” (Library of Congress)
Cities and states continued to celebrate laborers with Labor Day parades and festivals throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. But with union power in steady decline (barely 10 percent of American workers belong to a union today), the significance of Labor Day as a holiday set aside for workers has waned. While cities and towns still hold Labor Day parades honoring local workers, many people now consider the national holiday to represent the change of seasons rather than improving working conditions.

But were it not for laborers like those who first marched in New York in 1882, millions of Americans today would not be able to enjoy eight-hour workdays, minimum wage laws – and federal holidays off.
Emma Newcombe has a Ph.D. in American and New England Studies from Boston University.
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