How Our Ancestors Celebrated Labor Day

Labor day paradeLabor Day offers a welcome break from our work lives. While we can appreciate it as a day of leisure, consider taking some time to look back on the history of Labor Day and how your ancestors might have celebrated it. Labor Day isn’t just about hot dogs and hamburgers. It’s a celebration of the hard work that labor unions have done in order to give us the fair working conditions we enjoy today.

A Different Era

A hundred years ago, workers lived under very different conditions. The eight-hour workday, the 40-hour week, and paid vacations are some of the many practices that labor unions fought hard to implement. Without laws enforcing these practices, people were expected to work long hours almost every day. Working was a lot more dangerous back then. It took many workplace injuries and deaths and lots of effort from labor unions to give us things like worker safety laws, health benefits, and compensation for work-related injuries.

The First Labor Day

On September 5th, 1882, many unions gathered together to hold a parade and picnic in New York City. The New York Central Labor Union pushed hard to get this day recognized as a holiday.

It wasn’t easy to get this event together. Workers and participants had to lose a day’s pay in order to take part in the parade. At first, only a small number of workers showed up to the parade. Hundreds of people lined the sidewalks and stood jeering at these brave pioneers. Soon, though, the initial marchers were joined by a contingent of 200 more workers and a band from the Jewelers Union. Next, some bricklayers showed their support by joining the march, followed by another band. More and more groups turned up to show support for the labor unions until there were almost 10,000 marchers in total.

In honor of this historic march, Labor Day was recognized as a state holiday by Oregon in February of 1887. By the end of the year, Massachusetts, Colorado, New York and New Jersey joined Oregon and made the day an official event. In 1894, Congress passed a bill that made Labor Day into a national holiday.

Researching our Ancestors

There are a number of resources you can turn to in order to find out more about our union ancestors. First, try checking out the union’s private newspapers. Many unions published their own papers and circulated them around their communities. Examples include the Duluth (Minn.) Labor World, first published in 1896, and the New York Union and Trades Advocate, first published in 1865. The Library of Congress proudly displays these newspapers and many others as part of its “Chronicling America” collection.

Alternately, the US Newspaper Directory, 1690-Present website has a database that includes many historic newspapers. It’s easy to filter out everything except for labor newspapers by using the “more search options” dialogue.
If you’re willing to search out physical records yourself, you can find even more information about our ancestors in labor unions. Many repositories of historical information will have documents, photographs, and more for you to browse.

Here are a few choice locations around the country:
The Southern Labor Archives at the Georgia State University Library:

The Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at NYU’s Tamiment Library:

Many other archives like these exist. If you’d like a more comprehensive list, the Society of American Archivists offers an online map of labor-focused archives as well as a PDF highlighting many of the larger sites.

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