The history of Labor Day in the USA

September 2, 2020

This holiday weekend, learn about the history of Labor Day in the USA

A man with a hard hat and American flag representing the history of Labor Day in the USA

What do you think of when you think of Labor Day? For some, it's a much needed three day weekend and another opportunity for a BBQ. For those with children, it may mark the end of summer vacation and the start of school. But where did this holiday come from and what is it really about? To get a better understanding, we'll take a look at the history of Labor Day in the USA.

What is Labor Day and why do we celebrate it?

Labor Day is a federal holiday in the United States that takes place on the first Monday in September every year. Originally, it was designed to celebrate American workers and to commemorate the labor movement in the country.

Today, we celebrate Labor Day as a way to pay tribute to the American workers who have contributed to the growth and success of our country. Thanks to the labor movement, many American workers were able to achieve economic growth and personal success, which ultimately became the foundation for the country we know and love today.

When was Labor Day legislation passed in the US?

The first Labor Day legislation began to appear in the late 19th century at the local level. In 1885 and 1886, there were municipal ordinances passed in order to recognize Labor Day as a holiday, but the first state laws were not passed until 1887.

More than 5 years later, Congress passed an act to make Labor Day a federal holiday on the first Monday in September, and President Grover Cleveland signed it into law in 1894. When the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968 was passed, many other federal holidays were moved to uniform Mondays throughout the year. This included Martin Luther King Jr. Day, President's Day, Memorial Day and Columbus Day.

When was the first Labor Day in the US?

It may come as a surprise to find out that the first Labor Day was celebrated in the United States prior to any Labor Day legislation begin created. American workers in New York City hosted the first celebration on September 5, 1882. While it wasn't an official holiday at the time, the Central Labor Union organized a parade that featured over 10,000 people who came to show their support.

The event was so successful that the union scheduled another Labor Day holiday celebration for the following year. Before long, other regions outside New York formed their own celebrations, and by 1887, Oregon, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, and Colorado had added Labor Day to their list of state holidays. 

Who started Labor Day?

There is some dispute as to who was the official founder of the Labor Day holiday. While President Grover Cleveland signed the law that created the federal holiday, the founders of the holiday can be traced back to local union workers and leaders.

Some evidence points to Peter J. McGuire as the founder of the holiday. Peter J. McGuire was the co-founder of the American Federation of Labor, and some say that he suggested creating a holiday to celebrate the influence of American workers. Other research shows that Matthew Maguire, a secretary of the Central Labor Union, may have proposed the idea of the holiday when coordinating the first Labor Day event in New York City.

Although they had similar last names, the two were in no way related, and were in fact members of rival unions. However, because the two have been historically confused with one another, it is unclear which person deserves the credit. 

Do other countries celebrate Labor Day?

Other countries around the world celebrate Labor Day, or other holidays dedicated to the workers' movement. Canada typically celebrated Labor Day on the same day as the United States, while other countries commemorate the labor movement on International Workers' Day. International Workers' Day takes place in May each year, and is sometimes referred to as Labour Day or May Day.

Interesting Labor Day facts

These fun and interesting tidbits highlight the significant cultural role that Labor Day plays in the United States:
  • The first Labor Day was celebrated with a parade in New York City, and the city continues to host a Labor Day parade each year.
  • In the Victorian Era, the tradition of not wearing white after Labor Day began. At the time, people wore white while vacationing at summer cottages, and never after the summer season ended. The tradition continued for decades, but is not practiced as closely today.
  • Not only does Labor Day mark the unofficial end to summer, but it is also considered the end of the hot dog season, which runs from Memorial Day to Labor Day. 
In addition to that final summer barbecue, make sure to take time on Labor Day to recognize the cause of American workers and to thank workers for their contributions to our society. Labor Day is an important holiday, and one that should be commemorated by all Americans.

An American flag on a white fence in honor of the history of Labor Day in the USA

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Read more: If your Labor Day plans involve outdoor cooking, check out these safety tips that every grill master should know!

by Geoff Ullrich

About the Author

Geoff Ullrich is a writer and Content Marketing Specialist at Germania Insurance.