Origins of Labor Day

Celebrate Labor Day by learning about its historic origin story.
Celebrate Labor Day by learning about its historic origin story.
Celebrate Labor Day by learning about its historic origin story.

Retirees may not look forward to national holidays in quite the same way that working stiffs do. But that doesn’t mean they don’t get to celebrate Labor Day with everybody else! It’s fun to fire up your grill and host a Labor Day feast commemorating the unofficial end of summer, but it’s also important to take some time to learn about why Americans celebrate this holiday.

Labor Day is a U.S. federal holiday that is celebrated on the first Monday in September of each year. This special day honors the American labor movement and is dedicated to the contributions that American workers have made to the social and economic labor movement. The holiday was first celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882 in New York City. By 1884, the first Monday in September was selected as the official holiday, which was originally proposed by the Central Labor Union. The union also urged other organizations in cities across the country to follow their example.

While we celebrate Labor Day each year in September, there is some speculation on who founded the holiday more than 100 years ago. According to documents from the U.S. Department of Labor, it appears that either Peter J. McGuire or Matthew McGuire was one of the founders of Labor Day. Some records show that Peter J. McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and cofounder of the American Federation of Labor, was the first to suggest the holiday to honor the workingmen of America. But other records show that Matthew McGuire, a machinist, proposed and founded the holiday in 1882 while serving as the secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York.

Although it is uncertain which McGuire founded Labor Day, what is clear is that Labor Day was proposed in 1882, the Central Labor Union adopted the holiday and appointed a committee to plan a demonstration and picnic, and the Knights of Labor organized the first parade in New York City.

In 1887, Oregon was the first state in the country to make it an official public holiday until it became an official federal holiday in 1894 when 30 U.S. states officially recognized and celebrated Labor Day. It was also known as a “workingmen’s holiday” and the idea spread throughout labor organizations and in many industrial centers of the country.

Labor Day became a national holiday following the deaths of workers during the Pullman Strike of 1894 in Chicago. The workers died during riots where they faced off against the U.S. Army and U.S. Marshals Service. This tragedy brought much more attention to the workers and their cause as well as the U.S. Congress and President Grover Cleveland. After hearing about the deaths, Congress voted to approve legislation to make Labor Day a national holiday and President Cleveland signed it into law six days after the end of the Pullman Strike.

Once the nationwide holiday was established, the first proposal outlined how Labor Day should be celebrated and observed. It outlined that the holiday should be celebrated with a street parade to exhibit to the public the strength of the community and labor organizations as well as a festival for workers and their families, which ultimately became the pattern for celebrating Labor Day each year. Since its origins as an official holiday, Labor Day has transformed from just being celebrated by workers and their families to people across the country taking the day to spend time with friends and family in various ways.

While some communities may still host Labor Day parades and festivals, others celebrate the day by hosting a BBQ, shopping at retail stores and saving on discounts, or just relaxing at home. And although retirees are no longer working, they can still find ways to commemorate those American workers who contributed to the economic and labor forces of the country. And that often includes celebrating their own accomplishments!

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