The History of Labor Day: Whose Idea Was It and Why Do We Still Celebrate It?

Labor Day is easy to love. Unlike all the other holidays we get off during the year, there aren’t really any traditions to go along with it – no dinners, no gift exchanges, no traveling (unless you want to). In fact, you’re encouraged to take the day off to relax! What’s not to like about that?

Despite its simplicity, there’s an interesting history to Labor Day. It actually took some work to get the day recognized as a holiday in the first place. As you take a load off this September, consider the reasons we’re able to celebrate Labor Day at all.

Before Labor Day

To understand why there was a push for Labor Day, it’s important to take a look at working conditions at the time it was introduced. The late 1800s was the peak of the Industrial Revolution, an era that saw great innovations in technology – and a lot of terrible working conditions. Back then, there was no such thing as a 40-hour work week, and Americans were usually faced with 12-hour days in settings that would be illegal nowadays. These poor practices led to demonstrations, one of the most famous being Chicago’s Haymarket Riot in 1886, an event that led to many deaths.

Debate Over Who Came Up With the Idea

It was clear that something had to change, and the idea came about of a holiday for working people. While we can place Labor Day’s origins in the 1880s, what we aren’t very sure about is who originally came up with the idea. On one hand, there are claims that Matthew Maguire, a machinist, was the first one to come up with the name when he was secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York. Other evidence shows that Peter McGuire, a carpenter, proposed a holiday after attending and speaking at a labor rights festival in Toronto, Canada.

The Legislation of Labor Day

The first major Labor Day event was a parade held by the Central Labor Union in New York City on September 5, 1882. The parade was a major success, but the legislation of Labor Day needed to bring it to a national basis didn’t occur overnight. Rather, it took more than a decade for workers across the U.S. to get their holiday. Oregon became the first state to recognize Labor Day in 1887, and a few other states, such as California and Massachusetts followed suit. It wasn’t until 1896, under president Grover Cleveland, that Labor Day became an official United States holiday.

Labor Day Now

Now that Labor Day is more than a hundred years old, it’s just part of American culture. And although the Labor Day we know, celebrated at the beginning of September, is recognized only in the United States and Canada, the holiday helped spark worker’s rights revolutions in countries throughout the world. Even though the holiday may be seen simply as a day off and the beginning of the fall season, Labor Day is a symbol of worker’s rights as a whole, and that’s something we should appreciate even to this day.

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