The History of Labor Day

tools What’s Labor Day really all about?

It’s the first Monday in September and the last hurrah of summer. The last BBQ, last camping trip, last pool party before the kids are back to school and work gets busy again. But what is Labor Day and why do we celebrate it?

The History of Labor Day

history of labor day
Workers displayed the pride and power of the organized trades men. | Image courtesy

Labor Day is rooted in the rise of the Industrial Revolution in the early 1800s. Laborers worldwide found steady work in factories and mines—but worker rights were almost nonexistent. Men, women, and children worked 12-hour days, 6 days a week, often in deplorable conditions.

To protect themselves, labor groups started to unionize, organizing strikes and marches to advocate for worker’s rights. By the 1880s, the labor movement was in full force.

Linda Stinson, a former United States Department of Labor historian, explains that the Labor Day holiday evolved over a period of years: “In 19th century America, there was already a tradition of having parades, picnics and various other celebrations in support of labor issues, such as shorter hours or to rally strikers. But most historians emphasize one specific event in the development of today’s modern Labor Day. That pivotal event was the parade of unions and a massive picnic that took place in New York City on Sept. 5, 1882.”

protesting child labor
Even children were part of the early labor movement. | Image courtesy

After that landmark celebration, individual states started making Labor Day official one by one—staring with Oregon. Then in 1894, railroad workers in Illinois went on strike to protest wage cuts. President Grover Cleveland sent in 12,000 federal troops to break the strike. Violence erupted, two strikers were killed, and President Cleveland made headlines for his hard line approach. In an attempt to appease American workers (and voters) he signed the bill to make Labor Day a federal holiday that same year.

There’s nothing wrong with celebrating Labor Day as a restful, playful break from work.

Through the mid-1950’s, Labor Day was used as a time to mobilize laborers to rally for their rights. But in the second half of the 20th century—as our labor workforce diminished and was outsourced to other countries—Labor Day became less political, more a festive goodbye to the lazy days of summer.

summer sunset
Savor the last few moments of summer! | Image courtesy Pixabay user jill111

There’s nothing wrong with celebrating Labor Day as a restful, playful break from work—but while you do, try these easy ways to give a nod to those who fought so hard to secure our rights as American workers.

5 Meaningful Ways to Celebrate Labor Day

  1. Teach your kids why we celebrate Labor Day with a short and sweet video from PBS.
  2. The labor movement helped bring about the 8-hour workday, so Americans could have a work-life balance. Think about your own work-life balance and talk to your kids about a good work-play-rest balance in their own lives.
  3. At the office, before the Labor Day weekend, write notes to your employees or co-workers thanking them for their hard work and their contributions to your team.  Celebrate your employees with a company picnic to kick off the holiday weekend. You could even organize a gift exchange.
  4. Write thank you notes to the laborers that you appreciate in your community, like librarians, police officers, nurses, and teachers.
  5. Celebrate the holiday totally offline. Enjoy some time truly connected to those you care about most. Unplug and unwind. Take time to savor the day—you earned it!

Looking for great back to school gift ideas? Check out Elfster’s Back To School Gift Guides for the students and teachers in your life. Share your Labor Day pictures with us on Elfster’s Facebook page, on Twitter @Elfster, and on Instagram @Elfster.

About Amy G 9 Articles
Amy is a writer and editor based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her passions away from work include hiking Bay Area trails, traveling the world with her husband and two sons, and advocating for the wonderful but woefully underfunded California public school system. She’s an avid reader and moviegoer who can’t get by without a healthy and regular dose of girlfriend time. When it comes to the world of gift giving, Amy proudly admits that she’s just as happy to receive as to give.