We think of Labor Day as summer’s last gasp. The final three-day weekend of the season. In polite society, it’s the last day to wear white. There was a time when Labor Day meant the beginning of the presidential campaign, not a multi-year slog to election day.
In the late 1800s, the Industrial Revolution meant the average American worked twelve-hour days and seven-day weeks. Children as young as five or six toiled in mills, factories and mines, earning a fraction of adult wages. People of all ages, particularly the very poor and recent immigrants, often faced extremely unsafe working conditions, with insufficient access to fresh air, sanitary facilities and breaks.
New York City was the site of the first Labor Day parade. In 1882, 10,000 workers took the day off, without pay and marched through the streets in a “workingmen’s holiday.”
Oregon was the first state, in 1887, to declare Labor Day an official holiday. It became a federal holiday in 1894. According to the U.S. Department of Labor,
“Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”
Canada’s Labour Day is also in September. Dozens of other countries celebrate International Workers Day on May 1.
Take three minutes to watch this video overview at history.com.