For many Americans, Labor Day is a much-appreciated three-day weekend, and not much more thought is put into the time away from work. For others, it’s the last shindig before school starts and a sign of the end of summer. Many plans involve hot dogs, barbecues, water balloon fights, and attending parades – though this year is a bit different due to Coronavirus social distancing measures. Others continue “laboring” on this day that celebrates and honors workers.
Who Done It?
It’s unclear, however, who we have to thank for this Monday holiday – a McGuire or a Maguire (apparently no relation). Peter J. McGuire was the general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, as well as a co-founder of the American Federation of Labor. Some records appoint him as the first person to suggest a day to honor those “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.”
Matthew Maguire, the challenger, was a machinist, and later the secretary of Local 344 of the International Association of Machinists in Paterson, NJ. Those who give Labor Day credit to Maguire say he proposed the holiday in 1882 while serving as secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York.
How Was It Done?
New York City held the first Labor Day holiday and celebration on September 5, 1882. The Central Labor Union held its own event the next year, also on Sept. 5. Although New York was the first to celebrate the occasion, Oregon was the first state to pass a law officially recognizing the holiday in 1887. Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and then New York followed suit.
By 1894, 23 other states had taken up the holiday, and on June 28, 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed a law to make the first Monday in September a national holiday.
The First Labor Day
The first celebration in New York almost didn’t turn out too well. Local law enforcement officers were antsy, concerned a that mob was going to cause a riot and create all sorts of mayhem. By 9 am on Sept. 5, 1882, officers with clubs had surrounded city hall on horseback. At 10 am, William McCabe, the Grand Marshall of the parade, became nervous as he noticed there were only a few people ready to march, and no band to provide the marching music. Luckily, Matthew Maguire let the frazzled McCabe know that 200 marchers from the Jewelers Union of Newark Two had just crossed the ferry. And even better news, they had a band!
The band marched onto lower Broadway playing “When I First Put This Uniform On” from the Gilbert and Sullivan opera, Patience. The final count of marchers ranged from 10,000 to 20,000 men and women. The parade marched through lower Manhattan, and the New York Tribune reported that “The windows and roofs and even the lamp posts and awning frames were occupied by persons anxious to get a good view of the first parade in New York of workingmen of all trades united in one organization.”
A newspaper described the day as “…men on horseback, men wearing regalia, men with society aprons, and men with flags, musical instruments, badges, and all the other paraphernalia of a procession.”