holidays — September 02, 2013

Labor Day - Then and Now

by Bob Williams

history of Labor Day

We have to admit, Labor Day was always a bittersweet occasion growing up. On the one hand, we naturally enjoyed the festivities the holiday brought, the cookouts, the beach, and the friends. On the other hand, though, the holiday was always viewed as sort of the unofficial signal to the end of summer.

You Say Potato…

Labor Day in the U.S. (other countries have their own Labor Day, mostly held on May 1) is widely seen as the brainchild of one Matthew Maguire, a machinist who first proposed the holiday while serving as secretary of the Central Labor Union (CLU) of New York in 1882. The CLU adopted a Labor Day proposal and appointed a committee to plan a demonstration and a picnic.

But others say there’s evidence that Peter McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners (and a co-founder of the American Federation of Labor) was first to suggest a day to honor those “who from crude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.”

Whether it was the idea of Maguire or McGuire, the first Labor Day holiday was held on Sept. 2, 1882 in New York City, as planned by the CLU. Oregon was the first state to put Labor Day into state law, passing their legislation making it an official state holiday in 1887. Thirty states had made Labor Day an official holiday by the time it was granted federal holiday status in 1894.

Celebrating Working Men and Women

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the holiday gets its style of observance from its roots:

“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. This became the pattern for the celebrations of Labor Day. Speeches by prominent men and women were introduced later, as more emphasis was placed upon the economic and civic significance of the holiday.”

With changes over time in emphasis and methods of expression, the general structure of the official celebrations have held true. But no matter how the holiday is celebrated – whether it’s with parades and speeches – or good friends and grilled burgers – Labor Day simply celebrates the American worker.

And that means just about all of us.

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