Origins of Labor Day

For many of us, an eight-hour day, a safe environment, and the absence of any coworkers still wiggling their baby teeth are common expectations for a typical workplace. We can thank the labor movement of the late 19th and early 20th century for this. 

Labor Day may now be most recognized in the United States as a 3-day weekend for hitting up retail events or having the last leisurely getaway of the waning summer, but it was originally proposed by labor organizers as a day to honor workers for their great contributions to America’s industrial prosperity, and to bring attention to labor issues.

Caption: The first Labor Day parade, held at Union Square, New York City, by Knights of Labor on September 5, 1882.          Credit:The Granger Collection / Universal Images Group / Rights Managed / For Education Use Only

The first American Labor Day celebration occurred in New York City on September 5, 1882. Organized by the Central Labor Union, thousands of laborers and their supporters marched in a parade ending with a picnic, speeches, fireworks, and dancing in Wendel’s Elm Park. The popularity of Labor Day quickly spread, with many municipal and state governments recognizing the holiday. In 1894, Labor Day became a federal holiday, to be recognized on the first Monday of September.

In the years after that first Labor Day celebration, participants in the labor movement continued the fight to improve conditions for workers by forming unions, striking, picketing, marching, and performing other direct and political actions. Their achievements included child labor reform, the minimum wage, safety standards, shorter work hours, and organizing rights.


Caption: Float of the Women’s Trade Union League; at a Labor Day Parade in New York City. c1908.           Credit: Granger, NYC / The Granger Collection / Rights Managed


So this Labor Day, if you are one of the American workers fortunate enough to have the day off, kick up your feet and take it extra easy.  Raise a frosty beverage in honor those who fought, and those who continue to fight, for the fair treatment, safety, and dignity of workers.

Below are some of our library resources if you are interested in learning more about these topics:

Images: Photographer Lewis Hine’s work starkly illustrated the conditions of child laborers, migrants, laborers, and the poor during the early 20th century.


Caption: Child labour in America, 1909

Credit: Library of Congress/Science Photo Library / Universal Images Group / Rights Managed / For Education Use Only



Journal: Take a deep dive into international labor history research with the scholarly, peer-reviewed Labor History. Full text access: 1966-present (18 month embargo)




Fiction –


Lesser known than Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck’s first novel in this “Dustbowl Trilogy” received a film adaptation starring James Franco in 2017. In Dubious Battle (1936) tells the story of an agricultural strike and attempts to organize against abusive landowners.




Studs Terkel’s Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do (1972) collects over one hundred fascinating interviews of working people, from grave digger to waitress to businessman.




Grossman, J. (1973). Who is the father of Labor Day?. Labor History, 14(4), 612.

U.S. Department of Labor. (n.d.). History of Labor Day. Retrieved from

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