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Labor Day: The Surprising Origins of the American Holiday

Hint: It's not just about barbecues and big sales.

Labor Day barbecue
Labor Day's origins go much deeper than backyard barbecues and picnics.
Getty Images

Labor Day is on Monday, Sept. 5. For many of us, that means time off work, picnics and pool parties, and maybe watching a football game.

But when Labor Day began in the late 19th century, it was intended to honor the hard work and sacrifices of the US trade union movement. Over the decades, a lot of that has gotten lost along the way.

Here's what you need to know about Labor Day, including its history, traditions and the dates for Labor Day for the rest of the decade. 

Portrait of Peter J. McGuire

Peter J. McGuire

Lambert Studios/Getty Images

What's the history of Labor Day?

There are competing theories about the origins of Labor Day. According to the US Department of Labor, Peter J. McGuire, creator of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and, with Samuel Gompers, co-founder of the American Federation of Labor, is often credited with proposing a holiday honoring the working man at a gathering of the New York Central Labor Union on May 12, 1882. 

Held in September, the celebration would include a street parade and picnic that "would publicly show the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations," according to the proposal.

As industrialization had swept through the 19th century, many workers protested against lost wages, long hours and dangerous working conditions. Management would often send in Pinkerton guards to respond with threats and violence. 

McGuire's work in the trade union movement -- and especially in major labor strikes in 1886 and 1890 -- helped lead to widespread acceptance of the eight-hour workday in the US.

But, as the Labor Department also notes, some sources say a different turn-of-the-century labor activist, Matthew Maguire, was the real "father" of Labor Day. 

Maguire was considered a radical in his time, even by Gompers. A machinist in New Jersey, he ran for vice president on the Socialist Party ticket in 1896. In 1882, when McGuire supposedly proposed his holiday, Maguire was secretary of the Central Labor Union.

In The First Labor Day Parade, historian Ted Watts suggests Maguire's socialist politics were considered too extreme to make him the face of this new holiday, so McGuire was given the honor. 

Still, when the Central Labor Union held the first Labor Day Parade in New York City on Sept. 5, 1882 -- a Tuesday, not a Monday -- Maguire was the one who sent out the invitations and rode at the front of the procession. 

In 1894, an editorial in the Paterson, New Jersey, Morning Call claimed Matthew Maguire was "the undisputed author of Labor Day as a holiday."  

When did it become a national holiday?

Labor Day was first recognized as a state holiday by Oregon in 1887 and, over the next few years, more than two dozen more states followed suit.

In 1894, Congress passed a bill designating Labor Day a federal holiday to be held on the first Monday in September. President Grover Cleveland signed the legislation into law on June 28 of that year.

How do people celebrate?

A Labor Day parade in Okeechobee, Florida.

A Labor Day parade in Okeechobee, Florida.

Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
  • Parades. Labor Day was always intended to be honored with a parade, and many towns still hold one -- though most attendees don't realize it's supposed to honor the US labor movement and not just patriotism.
  • Neighborhood parties. Many people hold smaller backyard celebrations -- a chance for one last barbecue, potluck or pool party before the start of fall.
  • Sales. Whether online or in-person, Labor Day is a good time to buy a car or major appliance, as retailers try to make room for next year's models. Here's a rundown of the best Labor Day sales for 2022.

When is Labor Day this year?

Labor Day falls on the first Monday of September. This year it's on Sept. 5. 

Here are the dates for Labor Day through 2030. 

When is Labor Day?

2022 Sept. 5
2023 Sept. 4
2024 Sept. 2
2025 Sept. 1
2026 Sept. 7
2027 Sept. 6
2028 Sept. 4
2029 Sept. 3
2030 Sept. 2

Do other countries celebrate Labor Day?

Canada also celebrates Labour Day on the first Monday in September. Dozens of other countries around the world honor the labor movement on May 1, known as International Workers' Day.

The date was chosen in 1889 by the Second International, a collection of socialists, communists and labor organizers, because it was the third anniversary of the Haymarket Affair, a seminal incident in the US labor movement.

on May 1, 1886, the AFL called on American workers to go on strike for an eight-hour workday and many did. In Chicago, a multiday demonstration turned bloody when police attacked workers near the McCormick Reaper plant.

Police and protestors tussle at the Haymarket Affair

Police and protestors at Haymarket Square in Chicago on May 4, 1886.

Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The violence escalated on May 4, when an unknown assailant threw a bomb into the crowd. The blast and ensuing gunfire killed seven police officers and at least four civilians, wounding dozens more. 

While the incident happened in the US, and had a profound impact on the international labor movement, there was a desire to keep "the principle of working-class unity or trade union unity" from overshadowing nationalism and patriotism, historian Peter Linebaugh told NPR.

The US doesn't officially recognize May 1 as International Workers' Day.

Where did the 'no wearing white after Labor Day' rule come from? 

Lighter-colored fabrics reflect the sun, making them well suited for the hot summer months. But this particular rule originated with established society types in Gilded Age New York in the 19th century.

They feared their circles were being invaded by "new money" interlopers so they policed social norms -- including fashion --  and dictated Labor Day was the formal end of the summer social season and a time to return to darker, heavier fabrics.

However, fashion icons from Coco Chanel to former first lady Michelle Obama have famously flouted the practice and contemporary etiquette guides insist the "no white" rule is a thing of the past.  

Read more: Labor Day Sales 2022: 106 Best Deals You Can Shop Right Now