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On September 5th, 1882 in New York City, a handful of marchers dressed in full regalia stood around waiting for the first Labor Day parade to begin. Despite the low turn-out they were willing but unable to start; they didn’t have any music. The spectators urged William McCabe, the Grand Marshall of the parade, to give it up. Just when everyone was thinking it was a bust, the sound of a music came drifting up from the direction of the ferry. It was the Jewelers’ Union! And they had a band! And over 200 workers! McCabe and his men fell in behind, and behind them a group of bricklayers with another band and so on and so on. By the time the parade reached Wendel’s Elm Park, it is estimated that there were somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 men and women marching in support of workers.
Although the idea of Labor Day had been building amongst the unions and laborers for years, this was the first official day to honor those “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.”. From the very beginning the structure for the Labor Day festivities was set and has changed little since. The first proposal of the holiday included a street parade to exhibit to the public the strength and spirit of the trade and labor organizations, followed by a festival. By all accounts this first Labor Day included speeches, a picnic, an abundance of cigars and, “Lager beer kegs… mounted in every conceivable place.” So, at least in my neck of the woods it is evident that we’re still doing it right.
For most Americans the holiday signifies several pretty major events. First off, even though the actual end of summer isn’t until September 21st, it is pretty much the last weekend for vacationing before the kiddos go back to school and parents get back to the grindstone at their jobs. Sounds depressing but back in the 1800s the average American worked 12-hour days, seven days a week and their kids, as young as 5 or 6 years old, often worked right beside them. Not so bad any more since the 8-hour day was firmly established in 1916 with the passage of the Adamson Act. This was the first federal law regulating hours of workers in private companies.
Ironically, shopping is a pretty big deal (pun intended) Labor Day weekend as well. Ironic because while big discounts can turn Labor Day into a fun shopping spree for many, they create some of the longest, toughest workdays for many Americans, specifically our largest labor group, retail employees.
Labor Day weekend is also a great time to release blockbuster movies. In 2007 the top grossing movie opening on Labor Day Weekend, According to BoxOffice Mojo, was Halloween.
The holiday is also huge for sports as Labor Day weekend marks the beginning of many fall sports. NCAA teams usually play their first games that weekend and the NFL teams traditionally play their kickoff game the Thursday following Labor Day. The Southern 500 NASCAR race has been held on Labor Day weekend at Darlington Raceway from 1950 to 2003 and since 2015. At Indianapolis Raceway Park, the finals are held for the NHRA U.S. Nationals drag race that weekend.
Not a sports fan? There is still a Labor Day parade in New York City, which takes place throughout the 20 blocks north of the 1882 labor march. You can also check out your local Chamber of Commerce website for parades and event information in your area. Or, grab a couple of cold ones, fill up the kiddie pool and relax with your friends and family. It’s what the founders of this workingmen’s holiday would have wanted.