Tag Archives: history of labor day

A float for the Women's Auxiliary Typographical Union in the 1909 New York City Labor Day parade.

The Birth of Labor Day

The first Labor Day parade was held in New York City on September 5, 1882.

Back in the late nineteenth century  Labor Day meant something more than a three-day weekend and the unofficial end of summer.  This unique holiday was first celebrated on September 5, 1882. On that day  thousands of workers in New York City risked getting fired for taking an unauthorized day off to participate in festivities honoring honest toil and the rights of labor.  This first commemoration of Labor Day testified to labor’s rising power and unity in the Gilded Age and its sense that both were necessary to withstand the growing power of capital.

The Labor Day holiday originated with the Central Labor Union (CLU), a local labor federation formed in January 1882 to promote the interests of workers in the New York area.  The CLU immediately became a formidable force, staging protest rallies, lobbying state legislators, and organizing strikes and boycotts.  By August membership in the organization boomed to fifty-six unions representing 80,000 workers.

A float for the Women’s Auxiliary Typographical Union in the 1909 New York City Labor Day parade.

But CLU activists wanted to do more than simply increase membership and win strikes.  They wanted to build worker solidarity in the face of jarring changes being wrought by the industrial revolution.  Gilded Age workers were alarmed by the growing power of employers — from local building contractors to national corporations like Western Union — over their employees.  With political leaders wedded to laissez faire economics, employers were free to increase hours, slash wages, and fire workers at will.  Equally disconcerting was the growing gap between rich and poor, a disparity made shockingly clear by the emergence of millionaire industrialists and financiers with names like Gould, Stanford, Morgan, Rockefeller, and Carnegie.

These developments, noted labor leaders, called into question the future of the American republic.  “Economical servitude degrades political liberties to a farce,” announced the CLU constitution.  “Men who are bound to follow the dictates of factory lords, that they may earn a livelihood, are not free.  … [A]s the power of combined and centralized capital increases, the political liberties of the toiling masses become more and more illusory.”  CLU activists believed the establishment of a day celebrating the honest worker, the foundation of the republic, would open their eyes and compel them to reclaim their dissipating rights.  As John Swinton, editor of the city’s only labor paper wrote, “Whatever enlarges labor’s sense of its power hastens the day of its emancipation.”

The precise identity of the CLU leader who in May 1882 first proposed the idea of establishing Labor Day remains a mystery.  Some accounts say it was Peter “P. J.” McGuire, General Secretary of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners (and future co-founder of the AFL), who proposed the idea.  Others argue that it was another man with a similar last name, machinist Matthew Maguire.  Official bragging rights to the title of “Father of Labor Day” aside, both men played key roles in promoting and organizing the original holiday.

Labor Day in Detroit, 1942

After months of preparation the chosen day – Tuesday September 5, 1882 – finally arrived.   Optimism among the organizers ran high, but no one knew how many workers would turn out.  Few could expect their employers to grant them a day off and many feared getting fired and blacklisted for labor union activity.  When William G. McCabe, the parade’s first Grand Marshall and popular member of Local No. 6 of the International Typographers Union, arrived an hour before the parade’s start, the situation looked grim.  Only a few dozen workers stood milling about City Hall Park.

To the relief of McCabe and other organizers, some 400 men and a brass band had assembled by the time the parade touched off at 10:00 a.m.  Initially, the small group of marchers faced ridicule from bystanders and interruptions in the line of march because policemen refused to stop traffic at intersections.  As the parade continued north up Broadway, however, it swelled in size as union after union fell into line from side streets.  Soon the jeers turned into cheers as the spectacle of labor solidarity grew more impressive.

Marchers held aloft signs that spoke both to their pride as workers and the fear that they were losing political power and economic standing in the republic:

To the Workers Should Belong All Wealth

Labor Built this Republic. Labor Shall Rule It

Less Work and More Pay

Strike with the Ballot

Don’t Smoke Cigars without the Union Label

Eight Hours for a Legal Day’s Work

Many wore their traditional work uniforms and aprons and walked behind wagons displaying their handiwork.  Others dressed in their holiday best for the occasion.

Midway through the parade, the throng passed a reviewing stand at Union Square.  Among the many dignitaries was Terence Powderly, Grand Master Workman of the Knights of Labor, the most powerful labor organization in the nation.

After moving up Fifth Avenue, past the opulent homes of Vanderbilt, Morgan, Gould and other recently-minted tycoons, the grand procession of 5,000 or more terminated at 42nd Street and Sixth Ave.  There participants boarded elevated trains – extra cars had been added to handle the anticipated crowds – for a short ride to Wendel’s Elm Park at West 92nd Street for a massive picnic.  Tickets for the event were just 25 cents and by late afternoon upwards of 25,000 workers and their families jammed the park to participate in the festivities and consume copious amounts of food and beer.  Members of individual craft unions gathered under banners put up throughout the park.  Several bands provided music, while speaker after speaker held forth from various stages and soapboxes.

Thrilled with the success of their first effort, CLU leaders staged a second Labor Day the following year and drew an even larger number of participants.  In 1884 the CLU officially designated the first Monday in September as the annual Labor Day, calling upon workers to “Leave your benches, leave your shops, join in the parade and attend the picnic.  A day spent with us is not lost.”  Upwards of 20,000 marched that year, including a contingent of African American workers (the first women marchers debuted in 1885).

With such an impressive start, the tradition of an annual Labor Day holiday quickly gained popularity across the country.  By 1886 Labor Day had become a national event.  Some 20,000 workers marched in Manhattan, and another 10,000 in Brooklyn, while 25,000 turned out in Chicago, 15,000 in Boston, 5,000 in Buffalo, and 4,000 in Washington, D.C.   Politicians took notice and in 1887 five states, including New York, passed laws making Labor Day a state holiday.  Seven years later – just a dozen years after the first celebration in New York — President Grover Cleveland signed into law a measure establishing Labor Day as a holiday for all federal workers.

Labor Day caught on so quickly among Gilded Age workers because unlike the traditional forms of labor activism (i.e., striking and picketing) or civic holidays commemorating victories in war, it drew together workers for the purposes of celebration. As P. J. McGuire later wrote of the parade,

No festival of martial glory of warrior’s renown is this; no pageant pomp of warlike conquest … attend this day.  … It is dedicated to Peace, Civilization and the triumphs of Industry.  It is a demonstration of fraternity and the harbinger of a better age – a more chivalrous time, when labor shall be best honored and well rewarded.

In the twentieth century, Labor Day parades grew into massive spectacles of pride and power.  The highpoint came 1961 when 200,000 workers processed up Fifth Avenue behind Grand Marshall Mayor Robert Wagner, passing on the reviewing stand dignitaries that included Governor Nelson Rockefeller, Senator Jacob K. Javitts, and former President Harry S. Truman.  But the strength of organized labor demonstrated by that parade –union membership had just reached its historic highpoint with 39% of the American workforce – was already being eroded by the emergence of the service economy, globalization, and a political climate often hostile to unions.  By the late 1990s fewer than fifteen percent of American workers belonged to unions and Labor Day parades disappeared in many cities.  Or, as is the case in New York City, parades were moved to the weekend following Labor Day so as to avoid competing with the public’s desire for a final three-day weekend of recreation.

Still, it would be unwise to predict the Labor Day’s demotion to the status of Arbor Day or Flag Day.  Despite the fact that few Americans are even remotely aware of the struggle and spirit that laid the foundation of their current prosperity, comfort, and leisure, many of the issues that inspired the first Labor Day persist.  Public distrust of corporations has spiked in recent years as the result of scandals in accounting, campaign finance, and massive payouts to departing executives.  All the while, polls indicate that more and more Americans are worried about job security, health care costs, and pension funding.  Other workplace issues such as sexual harassment, discrimination, and family leave continue to attract attention.  Whether these concerns ultimately lead Americans to “Strike with the Ballot” remains to be seen.  In the meantime Labor Day will endure for the foreseeable future as an annual reminder of battles won and battles yet to be joined.

The Battle of Antietam, Photography, and the Visualization of Modern War

InThePastLane.com                             by Edward T. O’Donnell

Historians like to describe the American Civil War as the first “modern” war, in large measure

Photography was relatively new when the Civil War began. This is one of the cameras used by Mathew Brady.

Photography was relatively new when the Civil War began. This is one of the cameras used by Mathew Brady.

because of the central role played by new industrial technology. The telegraph, for example, allowed for instant communication across vast territory. Railroads made it possible to shift thousands of reinforcements hundreds of miles in less than a day. Ironclad ships revolutionized naval strategy, while hot air balloons held out the possibility of high altitude reconnaissance. Above all, what made this war different from all previous ones was the level of carnage made possible by advances in weaponry. Artillery became more accurate and deadly, while antipersonnel landmines appeared for the first time. Both armies used improved rifled muskets capable of killing a man 400-500 yards away (vs. 100 yards for traditional muskets). Little wonder then, that the four year conflict claimed the lives of more than 700,000 men.

But not all technological innovations that shaped the Civil War were military in nature. Great advances in photography allowed Americans to see what traditionally had been left to the imagination or an artist’s pen or brush: actual images of war’s carnage and destruction. Photography was first invented in the late 1830s in France and gained popularity in the United States in the 1840s and 1850s. At first, owing to the long time needed for exposure, most photographs were indoor studio portraits.

Mathew Brady was America's foremost photographer in the 1850s and 1860s.

Mathew Brady was America’s foremost photographer in the 1850s and 1860s.

America’s leading studio photographer at the time of the Civil War was Mathew Brady. Born in upstate New York in 1823, he first studied painting before turning in the early 1840s to a form of photography called the daguerreotype. In 1844 Brady opened a lavish Daguerrean Miniature Gallery on lower Broadway in New York. Business boomed, and within five years Brady became a highly regarded portraitist. In 1849 he opened a studio in Washington, D.C., and the next year published Gallery of Illustrious Americans, a book featuring the portraits of 24 prominent individuals, including U.S. presidents, inventors, and writers. By 1860 he owned large galleries in Washington and New York.

When the war came, Brady assembled his team of more than thirty assistants and sent them to photograph the conflict. Initially, they mainly photographed Union officers or scenes of camp life. That changed with the battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862, an epic clash between Union and Confederate forces that saw nearly 25,000 men fall dead or wounded. The next day Brady sent two of his assistant photographers, Alexander Gardner and James F. Gibson, to the battlefield. There they took hundreds of photographs of the battle’s aftermath. Most focused on the bleak landscape littered with thousands of fallen soldiers.

Alexander Gardner's photograph of the aftermath of Antietam. Here fallen soldiers lie strewn on the ground with a Dunker church in the background.

Alexander Gardner’s photograph of the aftermath of Antietam. Here fallen soldiers lie strewn on the ground with a Dunker church in the background.

Gardner’s and Gibson’s photographs shocked the American public.  The grim scenes of carnage and destruction challenged the romanticized visions of war shared by many citizens when the conflict started.  They delivered a blunt unambiguous message to their viewers: the men pictured here may have died gallantly, but they also died in a brutal manner, shredded by cannon fire and pierced by bullets, and then splayed in irregular and undignified poses in the cold dirt.

Currier & Ives issued this print of the Battle of Bull Run in 1861. Its romanticized view of war was typical of the era.

Currier & Ives issued this print of the Battle of Bull Run in 1861. Its romanticized view of war was typical of the era.

Note the contrast between the Gardner and Gibson photographs and this popular Currier & Ives illustration of the First Battle of Bull Run published one year earlier when most Americans still held to the belief that the war would be short, glorious, and victorious. Unlike the brutal scenes of death captured by the camera, the artist’s depiction of war shows several men who have fallen, but their uniforms remain spotless, with no trace of blood. The print’s caption describes the scene as a “Gallant charge,” reflected the popular notion that war romantic and heroic.

A few weeks after the Battle of Antietam, Brady put the grim collection of photographs on

Dead soldiers lie about the "sunken road."

Dead soldiers lie about the “sunken road.”

display in his New York gallery under the title “The Dead of Antietam.”  Tens of thousands paraded by the exhibit in astonishment.  For generations people on the home front had relied upon writers and artists like the one employed by Currier & Ives to convey the scenes of conflict and carnage. Now photographers could capture such images in unprecedented detail and realism. “The dead of the battle-field come up to us very rarely, even in dreams,” commented the New York Times, “We see the list [of casualties] in the morning paper at breakfast, but dismiss its recollection with the coffee … Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought the bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along streets, he has done something very like it.”

The world would never “see” war in quite the same way again.

Gardner captioned this photo, "A Contrast: Federal buried, Confederate unburied, where they fell on the Battle-field of Antietam."

Gardner captioned this photo, “A Contrast: Federal buried, Confederate unburied, where they fell on the Battle-field of Antietam.”

Follow me on Twitter @InThePastLane

Sources and Further Reading:

William C. Davis, The Civil War in Photographs (Seven Oaks, 2008)

Alexander Gardner, Gardner’s Photographic Sketchbook of the Civil War (Dover, 1959)

Mary Panzer, Mathew Brady and the Image of History (Smithsonian Books, 2004)

Theodore P. Savas, Brady’s Civil War Journal: Photographing the War 1861-1865 (Skyhorse Publishing, 2008)

Stephen W. Sears, Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam (Ticknor & Fields, 1983)

Wayne Youngblood, Mathew B. Brady: America’s First Great Photographer  (Chartwell Books, 2008)