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–by Joanna Hallac

Labor Day means a lot of things to a lot of Americans: a long weekend, the beginning of the school year, the unofficial end of summer. What, however, are the origins of this day? Why do we get the first Monday of September off from work and school? Perhaps you don’t care why, but as I used to tell my students, it is the “why” about everything that truly matters most. So here is a brief look into the history of Labor Day.

While the obvious origins of what we celebrate as Labor Day can be traced to the United States’s labor movement, the specific person who we cite as being responsible for the holiday is a little more complicated. There seems to be a split between those who believe it was Peter J. McGuire, the general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and a co-founder of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) that founded the holiday known as Labor Day, while still many others believe it was Matthew Maguire (not related…notice the spelling difference), a machinist from Paterson, NJ, who did so. According to the Department of Labor’s website, “recent research” seems to indicate more strongly that it was Matthew Maguire, not Peter McGuire, who first suggested the idea in 1882 when he was the secretary of the Central Labor Union (CLU). Regardless of which man first proposed the holiday in the 1880s, I think we can all agree that we’re pretty happy that they did.

The first Labor Day holiday was celebrated on September 5, 1882 in New York City by the CLU, and again the following year. In 1884, the CLU urged other labor organizations to follow suit and use the first Monday in September to celebrate Labor Day, which many did. By 1885, similar holiday celebrations were taking place in industrial cities throughout the country.

A parade on Labor Day in Buffalo, NY in 1900 (Library of Congress)

After 1885, Labor Day was celebrated and observed on the local level and spread to the state level not long after. By the end of 1887, five states, the first of which was Oregon, passed laws acknowledging the first Monday in September as the Labor Day holiday. By 1894, 23 states had such legislation; finally, the Congress followed along, passing bills in both chambers in June of that year, which President Grover Cleveland signed into law on June 28, 1894. The holiday has existed officially as a national day off ever since, with parades often to commemorate the hard work and toil of many millions of laborers over 150 years in this country.

Happy Labor Day, everyone!

Sources consulted:

Department of Labor website

Office of the Clerk of the House: Art and History website

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