Q: When and why did people first celebrate Labor Day?
Answer: Labor Day is “dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers,” according to the U.S. Department of Labor. “It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity and well-being of our country.”
The first Labor Day celebration in the United States was Sept. 5, 1882, in New York City. It was organized by the Central Labor Union there, but it’s not certain who came up with the idea.
Some records indicate that it was Peter J. McGuire, a carpenter who was a co-founder of the American Federation of Labor, and who suggested a day in honor of those “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.”
Other records indicate that it was Matthew Maguire, a machinist. According to the Labor Department, recent research seems to support the contention that “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.”
The initial celebration in 1882 was followed by a second one a year later, on Sept. 5, 1883. The first Monday in September was selected as the holiday in 1884.
The observance caught on relatively quickly.
According to the Labor Department, “The form that the observance and celebration of Labor Day should take was outlined in the first proposal of the holiday — a street parade to exhibit to the public ‘the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations’ of the community, followed by a festival for the recreation and amusement of the workers and their families.”
New York was the first state to introduce legislation for a state holiday, but the first state to pass a law was Oregon, in 1887, according to the Labor Department.
Congress designated the first Monday in September as Labor Day in 1894.
Today, many people see Labor Day as the final fling of summer, as indicated by an oft-cited quote attributed to Doug Larson, a Wisconsin newspaper columnist: “If all the cars in the United States were placed end to end, it would probably be Labor Day weekend.”
To read more about the history of Labor Day, you can go to the U.S. Department of Labor’s article about the 1882 event, “Labor Daze: Pride, Chaos and Kegs on Labor’s First ‘Day’” at www.dol.gov/general/laborday/history-daze.
The article takes in-depth look at the events of that first Labor Day parade in 1882 when as a New York Tribune article described it, the massive parade marched through lower Manhattan, where “The windows and roofs and even the lamp posts and awning frames were occupied by persons anxious to get a good view of the first parade in New York of working men of all trades united in one organization.”