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The Origins of Labor Day With Vintage Parade Photos

For many Americans, Labor Day symbolizes the last days of summer, a time for early fall season preparations, and coming back to school for a new academic year. But this day became a national holiday only thanks to the blood, sweat, and tears of generations that worked themselves to the bone to make a living. Here's the brief history of Labor Day, accompanied by original vintage photos from past Labor Day parades around the US and Canada.

Labor in the Industrial Revolution

Labor Day parade  in New York Labor Day parade in New York/Source
The Industrial Revolution brought about many scientific discoveries and technological advancements, some of which we still benefit from to this day. But it also brought about a massive migration from the countryside to the cities, and with it, a massive labor force looking for food and housing. In the late 19th century, most of the workforce was divided between mines, factories, and mills. 
Usually, the workday lasted 12 hours with little to no breaks, 7 days a week. The wages were just enough to make a humble living. Child labor and no sanitary facilities were common sights. 

The first parade

Labor Day parade - 1914 in Indiana 1914 parade in Indiana/Source

Labor unions first started appearing at that time- people knew they were stronger together as a community. They began organizing strikes and rallies to protest poor work conditions and evoke a renegotiation on working hours and pay. A turning point in American history occurred when 10,000 workers united in 1882 to form what we now call the first Labor Day parade. They all took an unpaid day off work to march from City Hall to Union Square in New York City, where they held a peaceful assembly. 


Not all was peaceful 

Labor Day parade - Russian Labor Association marching Russian Labor Association marching/Source
Several years after the first 1882 parade, workers of the McCormick Reaper Works went out on strike. In an attempt to restore order that quickly escalated to a violent encounter, several workers were wounded and killed. The next day, the 1886 Haymarket rally took place.
During the 1886 Haymarket rally, a bomb was thrown at the police, and chaos took over. Many were wounded and several were killed. This event marked a setback for the movement and the rights it tried to earn. Followed by a trial that was widely deemed unjust, opinions were divided. Some were converted into believing in the union movement, and others were antagonized by the violence.

Declaring a legal holiday

Labor Day parade  in Montreal Labor Day parade car in Montreal/Source
Twelve years after the Haymarket rally, in 1894, another event turned the wheels of American history. Workers of the Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago went on a week-long strike. They protested wage cuts and the firing of union representatives. A month later, they went up a notch; the American Railroad Union called for a boycott of all Pullman railway cars, which put a stop to railroad traffic. 
The federal government sent army troops to take control of the strike. This evoked many violent protests and riots, during which several lives were taken. This brought the labor issue into the public eye. And thus, 12 years after the first parade, Labor Day was legalized by Congress in the District of Columbia and the territories. Later that year, President Grover Cleveland signed it into law.

Labor Day quick facts

Labor Day parade Members of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union marching/Source
To this day, no one knows the true originator of Labor Day. 
Labor Day is part of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968, meant to provide workers with more 3-day weekends.
Other holidays celebrated on Mondays include Memorial Day and Columbus Day
* Other countries celebrate Labor Day too, but they do so on May 1. 
Sources: 1, 2, 3.
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