Happy Labor Day! As you enjoy this federal holiday … do you have any idea why you are celebrating?
Labor Day has been an official U.S. holiday for only slightly more than a century, yet it is embedded into the American psyche. In society, a genteel lady does not wear white gloves nor a white hat after Labor Day. For kids, it’s the end of summer vacation — the day before many return to school.
Unofficially it’s the end of summer — although autumn really doesn’t begin until Sept. 23.
Traditionally, Labor Day marks the beginning of the National Football League and college football seasons. National Collegiate Athletic Association teams often play their first games the week before Labor Day, with the NFL traditionally playing their first game the Thursday following Labor Day.
Today many Americans will celebrate Labor Day by flocking to the beach or the lake. It’s viewed by many at the last opportunity for water skiing, surfing or just basking in the sun before the chillier holidays — Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas … New Years!
The first recorded Labor Day in the United States was observed on Tuesday, September 5, 1882. Historians dispute some details, but the New Jersey Historical Society gives credit for the holiday to labor union organizer Matthew Maguire of Paterson, New Jersey, (1855-1917), saying Maguire “was not only a man to be reckoned with in the beginning days of the American labor union movement, but was very probably the man behind the creation of Labor Day.”
Other sources give credit to Peter McGuire.
“There is of course, the similarity of names,” notes the New Jersey historical society’s website. “Peter McGuire was also active in the formation of New York’s Central Labor Council and in 1897 he claimed to be the founder of Labor Day, but it seems possible that Matthew Maguire’s politics might have been at the root of his relative public obscurity.
“His passion was the improvement of working conditions and he led his first strike for a shorter work day in the 1870s. In 1882 Maguire, who by then was secretary of Paterson Local 344 of the Machinists and Blacksmiths Union, became one of the organizers of the Central Labor Union of New York and he became secretary of this organization too,” notes the historical society.
The first known Labor Day Parade was held in New York City on September 5, 1882, sponsored by the Central Labor Union. Matthew Maguire sent out the invitations, according to his grandson Matthew Feeney, who says Matthew and his wife rode in the first carriage at the head of the parade. Seated with them and waving to the crowd were famed Congregationalist preacher and abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher and brother of author Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote the anti-slavery book Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
However, the first Labor Day may have actually been celebrated in the 1300s, according to the offbeat website “Beats Entrophy.” It claims that European “Labour Day” — which is celebrated on May 1 — was founded by Bertrand Du Guesclin, a highwayman known as “the Black Prince,” whose band of brigands joined the Brittany Civil War (1341-1364), on the side of Carlos de Blois against the Count of Montfort. His fighters were known as “the Labourers,” according to Beats Entropy. In 1357, Du Guesclin lifted the siege of Bordeaux, for which he was knighted. In the Battle of Auray, however he was captured by the English. On September 2, 1365, he was hanged, trampled, drowned and finally drawn and quartered.
One year to the day in 1366, according to the website, a group of axe-wielding Labourers, “naked except for hoods, waving the banner of the Labourers, sacked the city of Rennes.” Enraged, King Charles V ordered them all hunted down and executed. However, “Rennes was again ravaged two years to the day of Du Gueslcin’s death, again by unknown and unclothed forces bearing the standard of the Labourers.”
According to the somewhat whimsical website:
By 1379, the first Monday of September had come to be known as the Day of the Labourers, and each year on that date men would ride out with the long-retired standard of DuGuesclin’s Labourers and commit crimes against the aristocracy. By the late 1750s the Day of the Labourers had been shortened to Labourers Day – and the annual day of rebellion had been reduced to acts of petty arson and vandalism against the emerging merchant princes. However, on September 4th 1887, Labourers Day once again became a day of resistance as some 3,800 angry brick layers shed their trousers and rioted in the streets of Paris.
While some small vestiges of this noble ritual remain, for the most part this tradition has been lost.
Many historians have written about Du Guesclin, however the “Beats Entropy” website seems to be the only source of any claim he inspired the European Labour Day, which is better known as International Workers’ Day. It is the commemoration of the 1886 Haymarket Massacre in Chicago when someone threw a dynamite bomb at police as they dispersed workers during a strike for the eight-hour workday, killing several demonstrators and resulting in the deaths of several police officers.
In 1904, the International Socialist Conference meeting in Amsterdam called on “all Social Democratic Party organizations and trade unions of all countries to demonstrate energetically on May First for the legal establishment of the 8-hour day, for the class demands of the proletariat, and for universal peace.” The congress made it “mandatory upon the proletarian organizations of all countries to stop work on May 1, wherever it is possible without injury to the workers.”
Since then, May Day has been an important official holiday in Communist countries such as the People’s Republic of China, Cuba and the former Soviet Union. In 1955, the Catholic Church dedicated May 1 to “Saint Joseph The Worker.” The Catholic Church considers Saint Joseph the patron saint of workers, craftsmen and “people fighting communism,” according to the Vatican website.
In the United States and Canada, however, the official Labor Day is in September. New Jersey was one of the first five states in 1887 to pass legislation making it a state holiday. A number of others passed subsequent legislation and on June 28, 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed a federal law designating the first Monday in September both as national Labor Day and as a national holiday.