We labor on


Americans celebrated Labor Day for the first time on September 5, 1882, in New York City. It was a Tuesday. The next year New York’s Central Labor Union, which may have conceived the holiday, celebrated again.

But these Big Apple workers were the lonely heart and soul of the festivities in those long ago days. The holiday hadn’t caught on outside the city. Now, union members or not, we all labor, and we all mark the day.

Vineyard workers celebrated at roughly the same time, but for different reasons. Here, several gleeful celebrations occurred as the sidewheel steamers left the dock, bound for the mainland with vacationers who would certainly not return till spring. Written histories are vague, but the early September merriment on the Vineyard was variously known as Goodbye Day or Now for the Bass Derby Day.

The labor movement thought up Labor Day to recognize the achievements of American workers, as well as their national contributions. It may have been a carpenter named Peter J. McGuire who suggested the holiday to honor his colleagues “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.”

Of course, one labor leader’s grandeur may be, today, a Vineyard planning and zoning official’s eyesore trophy house, but who can fault honest craftsmanship? A trophy house of 1880 was a blessed, contemporary economic miracle in a farming-fishing island community of severely straightened circumstances most of the year. Today, some of such monumental houses are preservation landmarks, and we cherish them.

In Labor Day history there were challenges to Mr. McGuire’s patrimony. It may have been Matthew, not Peter, Maguire who began the whole thing. Matthew was a machinist, not a carpenter. In any case, whoever started it naturally set up a committee to plan a demonstration and picnic. The committee approach slowed the adoption of the holiday as a national observation, but the committee did reach consensus on one point.

They nailed down one party plank, declaring that Tuesdays were bad days for recognizing anything, and that Monday would be better. The reasoning was obvious.

Unsurprisingly, right after that, the Labor Day holiday captured the imaginations of workers in many American cities.

But for a long time, it was only a holiday for city workers who had been celebrating to beat the band all summer, while the corporate barons they worked for sunbathed and sailed on the Vineyard. They knew the good times ended in the cities with the beginning of September and the return of the Vineyard summer residents from their offshore holiday spot, so Labor Day was a kind of Oh No, They’re Back Again Day. It was a consoling holiday for city workers.

For Vineyard wage earners, Labor Day has the air of liberation about it. Despite the different perspectives, each part of the workforce has something to hoot and holler about.

After a while, city governments followed the their constituents’ lead and institutionalized Labor Day. In the rural countryside, something called labor day meant same old, same old to the farmers. Had to milk the cows, no matter what. Had to hoe the beans. It wasn’t anything special. But before the 19th Century ended, most of the states and ultimately Congress made the first Monday in September a legal holiday.

Early celebrations included a parade of workers and their supporting organizations, followed by games and parties. Then, if they could not be avoided, speeches by prominent men and women became fixtures of the Labor Day celebration for a while. And, for a while, according to the Department of Labor, there was also a Labor Sunday, “dedicated to the spiritual and educational aspects of the labor movement,” but I’m sorry to report that quickly fell by the wayside.

Nevertheless, whether Monday is a Kick up Your Heels and Take a Breather or a Back to the Grindstone sort of holiday, it’s about work. Not doing any, mind you, but acknowledging the value of it.

“The character of the Labor Day celebration has undergone a change in recent years,” the Labor Department explains, “especially in large industrial centers where mass displays and huge parades have proved a problem. This change, however, is more a shift in emphasis and medium of expression … The vital force of labor added materially to the highest standard of living and the greatest production the world has ever known and has brought us closer to the realization of our traditional ideals of economic and political democracy. It is appropriate, therefore, that the nation pay tribute on Labor Day to the creator of so much of the nation’s strength, freedom, and leadership — the American worker.”