That’s right! We’re talking about Labor Day. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, “Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”i

For many today, Labor Day is simply the unofficial end of summer. It is a long weekend to sneak in a last trip to the beach or a day off spent with friends and family at a cookout. In the last century, a lot of the past fervor evaporated as labor struggles and fights for workers’ rights have waned.

So, how did this holiday come about?

  • In the 1800s, people worked 12-hour days, seven days a week, including children.
  • Labor Day began as part of the labor movement. Workers took an unpaid day off to march and listen to speeches or participate in political rallies calling for reforms to American work practices and other worker concerns.
  • The first Labor Day marchers had a cause; they were seeking safer work environments, shorter work days, a fair wage, and an end to child labor.
  • The idea for the holiday originated in Canada, where honoring the labor movement with annual marches began in 1872.
  • In the U.S., the holiday evolved over a 12-year period from 1882, when the first march was organized in New York City by Peter J. McGuire and the Central Labor Union, to 1894, when Grover Cleveland tried to win over the nation’s workers by signing the law that made Labor Day a national holiday.
  • Oregon was the first state to make Labor Day an official holiday in 1887.
  • The first Monday in September was chosen as the date because it was exactly between the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving.
  • The pattern for Labor Day celebrations was laid out in the initial proposal for a day celebrating labor. Peter McGuire said, it should “be celebrated by a street parade which would publicly show the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations.”ii He also suggested that the march be followed by a festival for workers and their families.
  • Matthew Maguire is often overlooked as the “Father of the Labor Day holiday” because he held some radical political beliefs. Some forces in the labor movement did not want Labor Day to become associated with some of those fringe beliefs, even though Maguire proposed a holiday celebrating the working men and women of America, prior to Peter McGuire.

Labor Day Today

The political activism of the holiday has dissipated in the 120 years since Labor Day was signed into federal law, though there are still communities that hold parades. In New York City, there is an annual parade which marches through an area of the city about 20 blocks north of the route taken during the 1882 labor march.

The character of Labor Day has shifted in emphasis and the medium of expression. Despite this the family-focus of the holiday remains intact; while Labor Day has come to be seen as the unofficial last day of summer, it continues to be one of those holidays people typically enjoy surrounded by family and friends. Whether you spend the day at a backyard cookout or take off for a one last weekend at the beach, Labor Day has become the time when most of us say our farewells to summer and settle in for autumn and the coming winter.

Labor Day Quick Flicks

The true call of Labor Day might be quiet today, but that doesn’t mean you can’t take a little time to share some of the history of the day with the kids. Both PBS and the History Channel have some great short videos available online. There are also longer episodes and specials from both channels focusing on the history of the Labor Movement overall.

So when the sun-soaking and barbecue clean-up are complete, why not sit back with your child and add a dash of history to your farewell to summer?

i United States Department of Labor. “History of Labor Day.”

ii United States Department of Labor. “The Real Maguire—Who Actually Invented Labor Day.”