More than 100 years after Labor Day was first celebrated, debate remains as to who is responsible for the holiday. Regardless of the holiday’s origins, the way it is celebrated today is vastly different from how it was at its inception.
The first Labor Day was celebrated on September 5, 1882, in New York City, and the holiday may have been inspired by a Canadian labor dispute that took place in Toronto in 1872. That dispute fueled a workers’ strike.
Records that show Peter J. McGuire, the then general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and a cofounder of the American Federation of Labor, was the first person to suggest a day to honor workers. However, there are other people who feel Matthew Maguire, a machinist, and later the secretary of Local 344 of the International Association of Machinists in Paterson, N.J., proposed the holiday in 1882. Soon after the Central Labor Union in New York adopted a Labor Day proposal and began plans for a demonstration and picnic.
In 1884, the first Monday in September was designated as Labor Day. The Central Labor Union encouraged similar organizations in other cities to follow New York’s example and hold their own holidays for workers on the same date. By 1885, Labor Day was celebrated in cities across the country. However, it was not yet considered an official, federal holiday, and many people fought to secure legislation. Such legislation began on the state level, where New York became the first state to introduce a bill recognizing Labor Day. But in February of 1887, Oregon became the first state to pass a law recognizing Labor Day. Following Oregon’s lead, Colorado, Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey officially recognized Labor Day. Many other states soon followed suit, and Congress passed an act making the first Monday in September of each year a legal holiday in the District of Columbia and the U.S. territories.
The first Labor Day festivities included speeches and picnics, and many of the first workers honored were carpenters, machine and factory workers and other industry workers. Today, the holiday celebrates many blue collar workers, including firefighters, police officers, bakers, teachers, and pharmacists. However, Labor Day has transformed into an end-of-summer hurrah more so than a holiday to pay homage to workers. Rather than parades, many people flock to the seaside to soak up a few more of the sun’s rays before saying goodbye to the summer.