Labor Day: 1882-2019

Labor Day started with a Knights of Labor meeting in New York City. Or maybe American Federation of Labor vice president Peter J. McGuire thought of it.

Either way, the American holiday was launched around 1882. Oregon made it an official public holiday in 1887. It became a Federal holiday in 1894.

Quite a few countries celebrate Labour Day, either with or as International Worker’s Day. Their celebrations are often around the first of May.1

America’s labor holiday might have been then, too; if 1880s politics and my country’s cultural history had been different.


America was going to Hell in a handbasket in the 1880s and 90s.

Or, from another viewpoint, developing a little common sense.

“The Obferation of Christmas having been deemed a Sacrilege, the exchanging of Gifts and Greetings, dreffing in Fine Clothing, Feafting and similar Satanical Practices are hereby FORBIDDEN”
(Public notice deeming Christmas illegal. Boston (1659))

“…They deserve to be cast into Hell….”
“…The God that holds you over the Pit of Hell, much as one holds a Spider, or some loathsome Insect, over the Fire, abhors you….”
(“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” pp. 6, 15; Jonathan Edwards (July 8, 1741) (via Digital Commons@University of Nebraska-Lincoln))

“What the Puritans gave the world was not thought, but action.”
(“The Pilgrims” speech, Wendell Phillips (1855))

“…You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”
(“A Cross of Gold,” William Jennings Bryan (July 8, 1896))

“Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”
(“A Mencken Chrestomathy,” H. L. Menken (1949))

As I see it, H. L. Menken was a tad unfair in his description of Puritanism. And I’m very glad that the ‘good old days’ aren’t coming back.

Nice Weather and “Satanical Practices”

I’ve read that America’s Labor Day is the first Monday in September because we’re more likely to have nice weather then. That makes sense.

I also suspect Labor Day promoters wanted to avoid tangling with stalwart defenders of yesteryear. Bygone days as seen through rose-colored glasses, at any rate.

And that’s almost another topic.

Let’s see. Where was I? Labor Day. Trade unions. “Satanical Practices.” Loathsome insects. Right.

America’s sometimes-grudging tolerance for folks who aren’t Puritans or at least Calvinist may account for our historically lax attitude toward May Day.

Or maybe Boston banned Maypoles and suchlike “heathenish vanity” along with Christmas. If so, I haven’t found documentation for that blue law.

England’s Cromwell and company were more proactive. Under their guidance, Parliament outlawed the observance of Christmas, Easter, and Whitsuntide. And, of course, banned maypoles.

“The Puritans detested May Day because it was rooted in paganism and reminded them of idolatry. Maypoles were banned by parliament on 8 April 1644:

‘And because the profanation of the Lords Day hath been heretofore greatly occasioned by May-poles (a heathenish vanity, generally abused to superstition and wickedness), the Lords and Commons do further order and obtain, that all and singular Maypoles, that are, or shall be erected, shall be taken down and removed.'”
(“The Romantics and the May Day Tradition,” Essaka Joshua (2007) via Google Books)

But all good — and not-so-good — things pass. After killing Charles I, establishing a Commonwealth and then The Protectorate, the Interregnum lost steam.2

Good grief. I’m wandering off-topic again.

May Day

I’m not particularly upset that some folks celebrate May Day and dance around maypoles.

I’m okay with Easter eggs and Christmas trees, too. Maybe I’ll talk about that, and why jack-0′-lanterns don’t horrify me, around Halloween. Then again, maybe not.

My guess is that America’s Labor Day — I’m back to that, finally — isn’t near May Day partly because of the Haymarket affair.

And partly because of May Day’s “heathenish” associations. Maybe.

The Haymarket affair started in Chicago on May 4, 1886.

The Haymarket Affair

The Haymarket affair started when peaceful rally in Chicago’s Haymarket Square took a bad turn.

Methodist preacher, socialist, anarchist and labor activist Samuel Fielden — that’s quite a portfolio — had just finished his speech when police showed up.

Lots of police.

They were dispersing the crowd when someone threw a bomb. We don’t know who.

Throwing the bomb may or may not have had something to do with the police killing eight workers the previous day.

The bomb killed policeman Mathias J. Degan and six other officers. Then the police opened fire on the crowd. Understandably, I suppose.

The New York Times and others said folks at the rally started shooting at the police.

What’s more certain is that Chicago’s police scored four kills and winged at least 70 other folks. The exact numbers are uncertain. Some folks probably got friends and neighbors to treat their wounds.

Remember, this was 1886. Folks wounded at the rally might have thought they’d be arrested if they went to a doctor or hospital. And Americans were still getting used to doctors who occasionally washed their hands. (October 30, 2016; October 14, 2016)

Newspapers, business leaders and the judicial system leaped into action. Citizens were told that anarchists caused the “riot.”

The powers that be suspended legal inconveniences like search warrants. Law enforcement collected dozens of suspects. Eight were tried and convicted.

Five were German-born immigrants. One was born in America, with German ancestors. One was a British-American, another was British. Some were hanged, slowly. One committed suicide. Opinion’s divided on whether and how justice was served.3

Living in the 21st Century

More than a century has passed since the Haymarket affair and W. J. Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech.

I figure that many folks know Labor Day honors the labor movement. And for most of us it’s also the unofficial end of summer.

Working eight hours a day, five days a week, became widely accepted. Workers, blue-collar and otherwise, often get medical insurance and other benefits besides their paycheck.

I think life in America is better for many folks now, compared to the 19th century. I’m also quite sure this isn’t a perfect society. We have real issues and bogeymen, and folks with more zeal than sense.

But as I’ve said before, I’m glad the ‘good old days’ aren’t coming back.

There’s more to say about work, social justice and the common good. A great deal more. But that will wait for another day.

Besides — I’ve talked about some of that, and natural law, before:

1 A holiday by any other name…:

2 Cracking down on “heathenish vanity” and all that:

3 Remembering Haymarket:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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4 Responses to Labor Day: 1882-2019

  1. Thanks for some interesting stories surrounding our observance of Labor Day, and why it might not be on May 1. I’m a little skeptical of the Haymarket Day influence, since that was May 4, not 1 — but it might be connected. The Puritan rejection of all things that might conceivably have pagan origin (whether later “baptized” or not) is a plausible consideration.

    And I hope you had a happy Labor Day!

    • I did – and a good day-after-Labor-Day, thanks to a visit from family.

      And thanks for responding to one of many uncertainties (in my mind) regarding Labor Day’s origins.

      I’ll readily agree that the Haymarket connection isn’t logical.

      It is, as you point out, a few days away from May Day. And events at the Haymarket incident were not obviously orchestrated by either union organizers, the “rioters,” police, news media or other major players.

      On the other hand, I’ve noticed that logic often seems incidental – at best – in political decisions. Which, I think, getting official recognition of Labor Day was.

      Bear in mind that I grew up in the Sixties, and feel little if any attraction to any prominent side in the current political brouhaha.

      America in the 1880s and 1890s doesn’t seem to have been any more coldly rational than any other period in my country’s history.

      Details vary from today’s angst, of course. They had anarchists, factory owners and none-too-well-treated laborers. We have other categories of folks who feel ill-treated: with varying degrees of justice backing their perceptions, and that’s another topic.

      I haven’t researched Labor Day’s origins thoroughly enough to have an informed opinion. My guess is that, like so much else in human experience, “it’s complicated.” 😉

      But I wouldn’t be surprised if the first and fourth of May were close enough to establish a sort of ‘where there’s smoke there’s fire’ association – – – which might arguably encouraged Labor Day promoters to focus on early September, when the weather’s often decent.

  2. Thank you Brian for visiting my Blog today. I often visit here but don’t comment. To be honest, I am so impressed by your vast knowledge that I rarely have something intelligent to say. Thank you for the time and effort you take in maintaining this Blog.

    God bless.

Thanks for taking time to comment!