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What's the meaning of Labor Day? The curious truth about the holiday's origins

It's not just a time to stop wearing white or enjoy a day off. Labor Day is a piece of US history that sparked its own traditions.

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 Labor Day always falls on a Monday, but the exact date changes every year.

Angela Lang/CNET

Today is summer's last holiday, and many companies will observe it by giving employees a day off. Labor Day also signals the fashion rule to stop wearing white until spring. But the long weekend is about more than style, taking naps and barbecues. Did you know that Labor Day has contentious beginnings? In fact, two men with almost the same name fight for credit.

Before you fire up the grill, enjoy time with friends or do some shopping for holiday sales, we'll explain the battle over the holiday's founder and the 19th-century fashion rule. If you want to look ahead, we also have the dates to mark your calendars for Labor Day through 2026. 

What's the true history behind Labor Day?

Labor Day has two different possible origin stories, and it doesn't help that the people who get credit have very similar names. And though they are indeed unrelated, their passion for improving the working conditions of Americans was much the same. 

The first version of how Labor Day came to be includes a man named Peter McGuire, the founder of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and co-founder of the American Federation of Labor. He led two strikes in 1886 and 1890, which led to eventual acceptance of eight-hour workdays. On May 12, 1882, McGuire presented a case to the New York Central Labor Union to propose an annual holiday celebrating workers' labor in September. A parade followed by a picnic was to be put on to display the strength and "esprit de corps" of working-class Americans. 

The other figure credited with Labor Day's creation was Matthew Maguire, who led strikes throughout the 1870s to make the public aware of manufacturing workers' exhaustive 12-hour workdays, seven days a week. He became the secretary of the Central Labor Union of New York and helped organize the parade and picnic credited to Peter McGuire. After President Grover Cleveland made the day into a federal holiday, a New Jersey editorial named Maguire -- not McGuire -- the true "Father of Labor Day." The first Labor Day celebration took place on Sept. 5, 1882, a Tuesday.

However, because Maguire held political beliefs that were considered radical for the time, Samuel Gompers -- co-founder of the American Federation of Labor -- didn't want Labor Day to be associated with his organization, according to the New Jersey Historical Society. Because of this, Gompers credited his co-founder and friend Peter McGuire as the creator of Labor Day in a 1897 interview about the holiday's creation.

When did Labor Day become a national holiday?

While the first picnic and parade took place in New York in 1882, Labor Day didn't become an official state event until 1887, when Oregon officially celebrated the holiday. Soon, the rest of the country followed suit, according to the Department of Labor. It was declared a federal holiday in 1894. We'll have ketchup with our hotdog, please.

The newest federal holiday is Juneteenth, signed into law by President Joe Biden with the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act on June 18, 2021. Read more about Juneteenth -- celebrated June 19 -- here

Is Labor Day on the same date every year?

Labor Day falls on the first Monday of every September. This year, it's on Monday, Sept. 6. Here are the dates for each holiday through 2026. 

Upcoming Labor Days

Year Day it falls on
2021 Sept. 6
2022 Sept. 5
2023 Sept. 4
2024 Sept. 2
2025 Sept. 1
2026 Sept. 7

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

You may know the phrase, "no white after Labor Day." This fashion rule demands you put all your white attire at the back of the wardrobe. But with weeks of warm weather left in much of the US, why has it become a widespread end-of-summer practice? 

The creators of the fashion edict were wealthy, high-society 19th century women who found their social lives being invaded by "new money" newcomers. To establish their place from brand-new millionaires in the social hierarchy, insider knowledge became a common practice to separate families with established privilege from new arrivals to high society. According to lore, the introduction of Labor Day provided a checkpoint at the end of the summer social season to single out those in the know. 

Lighter fabrics also reflect the sun during hot summer months, making white a popular and practical color during a carefree and warm season. Custom dictated a return to darker, heavier fabrics once cooler weather came. However, fashion icon Coco Chanel and former first lady Michelle Obama have famously flouted the practice. Nowadays, respected etiquette guides tell us that the rule is a thing of the past. No need to tuck that white shirt away! 

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Labor Day was declared a federal holiday in 1894. 

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

What local Labor Day celebrations are near you?

Many cities and towns host their own Labor Day celebrations, including parades, town-wide festivals, cookouts and maybe even fireworks. Some places to look for Labor Day events in your community include: 

Note that because of the ongoing pandemic and local restrictions, your community's celebration may look different this year. Read more about safety updates regarding COVID-19, including current guidelines on wearing masks in public if you're vaccinated

What are some Labor Day sales?

Oh yes. Labor Day is a good time to save money on electronics and household items. Here are a few deals happening this weekend.