Labor Day, held on the first Monday of September in the United States, is a holiday that we often use as a mark for the end of summer, celebrating with parades, barbecues and fireworks—and it’s a day for many Americans to take a break from school/work.
But Labor Day means more than just a day to relax, and while it’s now held in numerous countries across the globe, its traditions date back to the 1800s in the U.S. Here is a primer on how the holiday began and what it means:
What does Labor Day mean?
Labor Day celebrates the economic and social advancements of American workers. The holiday also serves as a day to acknowledge the contributions of the American workforce to the nation’s success, both as a world leader and as an economic force.
When did Labor Day first begin?
The holiday we celebrate now can be traced back to the 1880s, when labor unions grew more prominent as American jobs shifted from agriculture to manufacturing. In 1882, union leaders in New York held a parade that they called a “monster labor festival.” Over 10,000 people participated in the parade and its festivities, taking unpaid time off to march from City Hall to Union Square. That NYC parade—still held today—was a landmark toward the Labor Day we know today.
When did Labor Day become a federal holiday?
In the 1880s, multiple ordinances came to recognize Labor Day as a holiday, and in 1887, Oregon was first state to write Labor Day into law. By 1894, 29 states had passed legislation to make Labor Day an official holiday, and in July of that year, Congress made the first Monday of September an official holiday in the other states, as well as in Washington, D.C. and the territories. President Grover Cleveland signed the day into law, and in 1896, the first nationally recognized Labor Day was held.
Why is Labor Day held on the first Monday in September?
Labor Day’s date goes all the way back to the NYC parade’s origins: Labor leaders scheduled the parade for September to coincide with a conference held by a large and influential union called the Knights of Labor. The first two parades were held on Sept. 5, but the third parade happened on the first Monday of the month, and that date was chosen by Congress in 1894.
How is Labor Day celebrated in other countries?
In many other countries across the globe, Labor Day is held on May 1, recognized as International Labor Day. In the U.S., however, we celebrate the holiday in September due to history: Not only was the first parade in NYC held in September, but May 1 in the U.S. was a date marked by tragedy: On that date in 1886, protesters in Chicago gathered to fight for an 8-hour workday, but a still-undetermined amount of people died after a bomb was hurled into the crowd.
How has the holiday changed over the years?
The nature of Labor Day celebrations has evolved significantly from its beginnings in the 19th century. Recently, mass displays and giant parades in urban centers have proved difficult to organize, and acknowledgement of the holiday has shifted toward media, with government officials, union representatives and educators expressing their views on the day through newspapers, television and radio.
History.com Staff. “Labor Day.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 2010, www.history.com/topics/holidays/labor-day.
Rayman, Noah. “What Is Labor Day?” Time, Time, 29 Aug. 2914, www.time.com/3222093/labor-day-school-white-history-monday-september.
United State Department of Labor. “History of Labor Day.” United States Department of Labor, 15 Aug. 2016, www.dol.gov/general/laborday/history.
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