The Origins & History of Labor Day

Labor Day : hot dogs, barbecue

For many of us, Labor Day signifies the end of summer and many of us celebrate it outside barbecuing. As we look forward to spending the holiday with our family and friends, we thought it would be interesting to look back and see how it was celebrated in the past. The following history is courtesy of the U.S. Department of Labor, alongside some photojournalistic pieces shared from the Library of Congress and Getty Images. You can also check out our Online Resources about Labor Day.

Labor Day: What it Means

Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity and well-being of our country.

Labor Day Legislation

The first governmental recognition came through municipal ordinances passed in 1885 and 1886. From these, a movement developed to secure state legislation. The first state bill was introduced into the New York legislature, but the first to become law was passed by Oregon on February 21, 1887. During 1887, four more states — Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York — created the Labor Day holiday by legislative enactment. By the end of the decade Connecticut, Nebraska and Pennsylvania had followed suit. By 1894, 23 more states had adopted the holiday, and on June 28, 1894, Congress passed an act making the first Monday in September of each year a legal holiday in the District of Columbia and the territories.

The First Labor Day

The first Labor Day holiday was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City, in accordance with the plans of the Central Labor Union. The Central Labor Union held its second Labor Day holiday just one year later, on September 5, 1883. By 1894, 23 more states had adopted the holiday, and on June 28, 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed a law making the first Monday in September of each year a national holiday.

A Nationwide Holiday

The form that the observance and celebration of Labor Day should take was outlined in the first proposal of the holiday — a street parade to exhibit to the public “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations” of the community, followed by a festival for the recreation and amusement of the workers and their families. This became the pattern for the celebrations of Labor Day. Speeches by prominent men and women were introduced later, as more emphasis was placed upon the economic and civic significance of the holiday. Still later, by a resolution of the American Federation of Labor convention of 1909, the Sunday preceding Labor Day was adopted as Labor Sunday and dedicated to the spiritual and educational aspects of the labor movement.

The character of the Labor Day celebration has changed in recent years, 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. Labor Day addresses by leading union officials, industrialists, educators, clerics and government officials are given wide coverage in newspapers, radio and television.

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’s appropriate, therefore, that the nation pays tribute on Labor Day to the creator of so much of the nation's strength, freedom and leadership — the American worker. (Courtesy of the U.S. Department of Labor)

Labor Day Celebrations Throughout the Years

A large American flag is suspended from a crane in a Labor Day parade in New York City, 1982. Barbara Alper — Getty Images
A large American flag is suspended from a crane in a Labor Day parade in New York City, 1982. Barbara Alper — Getty Images
Labor Day parade along 14th St. in Denver on Sept. 2, 1986. Lyn Alweis— Denver Post via Getty Images
Labor Day parade along 14th St. in Denver on Sept. 2, 1986. Lyn Alweis — Denver Post — Getty Images
Members of the Hoofin High Country Cloggers lead dancing in the third annual Labor Day Weekend Hoedown in Larimer Square in 1979 in Denver.Ernie Leyba— Denver Post via Getty Images
Members of the Hoofin High Country Cloggers dancing in the third annual Labor Day Weekend Hoedown in Larimer Square in 1979. Ernie Leyba — Denver Post — Getty Images
President Harry S. Truman speaking before 125,000 people in Detroit on Labor Day, 1948. Bettmann Archive — Getty Images
President Harry S. Truman speaking before 125,000 people in Detroit on Labor Day, 1948. Bettmann Archive — Getty Images
Labor Day marchers in Detroit, circa 1942. Library of Congress
Labor Day marchers in Detroit, circa 1942. Library of Congress
Labor Day celebration in Colorado, circa 1940. Library of Congress
Labor Day celebration in Colorado, circa 1940. Library of Congress
Miners with their children on Labor Day in Colorado, circa 1940. Library of Congress
Miners with their children on Labor Day in Colorado, circa 1940. Library of Congress
Labor Day parade on Pennsylvania Avenue in the vicinity of Kernan's Lyceum Theater and unfinished Post Office building in Washington D.C., 1894. Library of Congress
Labor Day parade on Pennsylvania Ave. in the vicinity of Kernan's Lyceum Theater and unfinished Post Office building in Washington D.C., 1894. Library of Congress

Lexington County Public Library wishes you and your loved ones a happy and safe Labor Day.

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