Labor Day—the American holiday on the first Monday of September—generally marks the end of summer, the beginning of the school year, and—in certain circles—an arbitrary cut-off point for wearing white. It’s frequently celebrated by taking a long-weekend trip, firing up the backyard grill at home, or going to see a Labor Day parade. Of course, this is assuming you’re lucky enough to actually get the Monday off from work. As I contemplated my holiday weekend activities, I began to wonder: Who invented Labor Day?
I shouldn’t have been surprised to find several informative articles about the history of Labor Day featured on the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) website. Apparently, as so often happens with invention, there are disputes about who came up with the idea first. DOL acknowledges that two men with coincidentally similar names, Peter J. McGuire and Matthew Maguire, have received credit for suggesting a holiday to honor American workers.
Both men were well-respected union leaders working in the New York-New Jersey region during the 1880s—a very active period in the U.S. labor rights movement. Peter McGuire founded the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and co-founded, with Samuel Gompers, the American Federation of Labor (better known simply as the AFL). Matthew Maguire served as a secretary of Local 344 of the International Association of Machinists in Paterson, New Jersey, and also as the secretary of the Central Labor Union of New York. Although the tide seems to be turning toward giving Maguire the primary credit, both men were clearly influential in speaking up on behalf of their fellow workers.
The Central Labor Union of New York held the first Labor Day celebrations on September 5 in 1882 (see lithograph) and 1883. The following year the union shifted the holiday to the first Monday of the month. This tradition generally spread as state governments began to officially put the holiday on their calendars. Finally in 1894, the federal government made Labor Day a national holiday for all 50 states and the District of Columbia. According to the DOL, which is celebrating its centennial this year, the holiday 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.”
For more about the holiday and related labor history, check out the American Enterprise exhibition blog post by historian Paul Buhle on the National Museum of American History’s website. You can also read a Smithsonian story about Labor Day’s secret societies connection. If you’re a social studies teacher, you might be interested also in the Library of Congress labor-themed educational resources.
Happy Labor Day!