Labor Day, celebrates American workers and their past and current contributions to the success of our country. The first Labor Day took place on September 5, 1882 in New York City. The Central Labor Union of New York organized a parade of thousands of union members from all trades that culminated in a picnic for the members and their families. This form of celebration gained popularity across the country – by 1894, over 30 states had recognized Labor Day as a holiday. On June 28, 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed a law officially making the first Monday of September a national holiday.
In its earliest form, Labor Day consisted of street parades and picnics exhibiting the strength and number of local labor unions. Prominent citizens made speeches at these festivities, and the Sunday before Labor Day was often dedicated to the educational and spiritual element of the organized labor movement.
Although Labor Day no longer has the fanfare that it did in past years, it still celebrates the American workforce and offers many citizens a day of rest. Labor and the nature of work continue to be hot topics on the national stage. A number of JMC fellows have written about American workers and the ways in which they have contributed to our nation’s identity. In recognition of Labor Day, the Jack Miller Center presents the following collection of resources about the origins of organized labor, the nature of the American work ethic, and the government’s role in the average worker’s life.
Below is a collection of resources about Labor Day and the circumstances surrounding its creation. Browse these resources or jump from section to section by clicking the links below:
Selected online resources on Labor Day:
The History of Labor Day
The U.S. Department of Labor provides a history of Labor Day and paints a picture of the first Labor Day in 1882 – an unofficial, chaotic, celebratory affair on the streets of lower Manhattan.
What So Proudly We Hail
The What So Proudly We Hail online curriculum offers an ebook,“The Meaning of Labor Day,” that considers the origins and traditions of Labor Day, the role of the labor movement in America, and the satisfactions of the working life. Each selection includes a brief introduction by the editors with guiding questions for discussion.
Just as Memorial Day has become embedded in American culture as the day marking the beginning of summer, so too Labor Day, celebrated annually on the first Monday of September, has come to signify summer’s end. Serving as bookends to the summer season, both holidays are celebrated with three-day weekends that include travelling to visit friends and family, barbecues and picnics, swimming, and parades. Although it may seem strange to celebrate the value of labor by taking time off from work, these leisurely pursuits have long been regarded as fitting for a holiday meant to honor the “contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”
Labor Day at the National Archives
The National Archives holds a variety of records, photos, and videos related to Labor Day, the labor movement, and the development of the American workplace.
The Smithsonian’s Labor Day Image Gallery
This online digital collection of images documents the changing nature of work throughout American history. It features a variety of images, including stamps, photos, artwork, and clothing.
Classic Labor Songs from Smithsonian’s Folkways
The Smithsonian Institution has gathered a collection of songs related to the American labor movement. Artists include Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Joe Glazer, and the Almanac Singers.
*If you are a JMC fellow who’s published on Labor Day or its history, and would like your work included here, send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.