Americans celebrated Labor Day for the first time on Sept. 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.
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 Where Did I Leave My Fishpole Day. A grumpy few called it, How Will I Make It Through the Winter 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 a Vineyard planning and zoning official’s eyesore trophy house, but who can fault honest craftsmanship?
In Labor Day history there were challenges to 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 found that it was pretty clear that Tuesdays were bad days for recognizing anything, and that Monday would be better, for the obvious reasons.
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, Here They Come Again Day. Labor Day was a consoling sort of 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 their constituents’ lead and institutionalized Labor Day. In the rural countryside, something called labor day meant same old, same old to the farmers. They had to milk the cows morning and night, no matter. 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 soon became fixtures of the Labor Day celebration. 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 embarrassingly that quickly fell by the wayside.
Nevertheless, despite its long history, this Labor Day won’t be a kick up your heels and take a breather, or a back to the grindstone sort of holiday. It’s about work, jobs. And, too many Americans are without jobs in this wearing aftermath of the Great Recession.
“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.”
Tributes are fine, but a growing economy and an abundance of good jobs would be a real cause for celebration.
A version of this annual Labor Day Editorial appeared in this space in 2006.