8 Facts About Labor Day

Sviatlana Barchan/iStock via Getty Images
Sviatlana Barchan/iStock via Getty Images

For more than 125 years, Americans have celebrated Labor Day on the first Monday of every September, but the origins of this holiday have been somewhat lost to time. Now it's seen as the unofficial end of summer (and hot dog season), the dreaded return to school for kids across the country, and a time to score a great deal on a mattress. But with more than a century of history to sift through, you'd be forgiven for not knowing about the holiday's roots. So from the true story of its beginnings, to the final word on whether or not you can wear white afterward, here are eight facts about Labor Day.

1. The first Labor Day parade was held in New York City in 1882.

If you were a factory worker in the 1880s, you were probably toiling away at your job for an average of 60 hours a week, and it wasn't unheard of for textile laborers in New York to make only 75 cents a day, which was a paltry sum, even for the time. To bring attention to these unfair working conditions, labor organizers coordinated the first Labor Day parade on Tuesday, September 5, 1882.

Close to 10,000 people attended the parade, according to a New York Times article published on September 6, 1882. Marchers carried signs bearing slogans like “Eight Hours for a Legal Day’s Work” and “Less Hours and More Pay.” The New York Times called the demonstration “pleasant” and “orderly,” although it noted that the parade’s organizers expected closer to 30,000 or 40,000 laborers to show up and support the march.

2. The Origins of Labor Day are still disputed.

Historians often credit Peter J. McGuire, co-founder of the American Federation of Labor, as the first to propose a holiday celebrating workers. According to the modern-day American Federation of Labor, McGuire brought up the idea in an 1882 meeting of the New York Central Labor Union, saying that workers should lead a parade to “publicly show the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations.”

But researchers from the New Jersey Historical Society suggest the true founder may have been someone else with a very similar name: Matthew Maguire, a machinist from New Jersey who led several strikes in the 1870s, and by 1882 had become the secretary for the New York Central Labor Union. In an 1894 editorial about the holiday, which President Grover Cleveland had just signed into law, a New Jersey newspaper said the honor should go to Maguire, the “undisputed author of Labor Day as a holiday.”

However, some historians suggest that labor organizers may have deliberately tried to cloud Maguire’s association with Labor Day’s origins, concerned that the holiday might become associated with his “radical” politics (he was a member of the Socialist Labor Party).

3. There’s a reason Americans celebrate Labor Day over May Day.

On May 1, 1886, 35,000 workers went on strike in Chicago as part of a larger organized labor protest across the country. For the first two days, the protests and demonstrations were peaceful, but by May 3, violence broke out between laborers and police during a protest at Chicago's McCormick Reaper Works factory, leaving several workers wounded or dead. The incident encouraged anarchist labor leaders to call for another protest the following day in Haymarket Square, where violence broke out again after police attempted to disband the crowd. At that point, an anonymous individual threw a bomb at the police, killing one officer at the scene. The police retaliated, and when all was said and done, seven officers and (at least) one civilian were killed in the chaos, and plenty more in the crowd were injured.

Following the riot, police arrested eight anarchist leaders on charges of conspiracy. Seven of the eight were convicted of murder and sentenced to death, despite the fact that six of the defendants weren’t even in Haymarket Square at the time the bomb was thrown. At the Second International Socialist Conference in 1889, members voted to celebrate May 1 as International Workers’ Day, often referred to as May Day, to commemorate the Haymarket affair. President Cleveland wanted to avoid the socialist and anarchist connotations of May Day, so when he established a holiday to celebrate America's workers, he chose the first Monday in September, calling back to previous traditions from New York's labor movement.

4. Oregon was the first state to make Labor Day an official holiday.

In 1887, Oregon became the first state to celebrate Labor Day as a legal holiday. In 1894, the rest of the United States followed suit when President Cleveland signed the holiday into law after political pressure created by his suppression of the Pullman Strike. Cleveland, aware that he needed to appease the labor movement, pressed for nationwide recognition of the first Monday in September as Labor Day.

5. Canada’s Labour Day is also celebrated on the first Monday of September.

Prime Minister John Thompson signed Labour Day into law in 1894, the same year Cleveland declared it a national holiday in the United States. Many labor unions that held successful events in the United States, like the Knights of Labor, also had branches in Canada. Thompson was similarly motivated by mounting political pressure from labor activists, who organized several strikes to demand a nine-hour workday.

6. People once tried to make “Labor Sunday” a thing.

In 1909, the American Federation of Labor declared the Sunday before Labor Day “Labor Sunday”—an opportunity to reflect on the spiritual and educational parts of the labor movement. It never really took off among the general public, but some churches and religious organizations acknowledge the holiday during Sunday services.

7. There’s no good reason why you shouldn’t wear white after Labor Day.

You can ignore that age-old myth that you shouldn’t wear white after Labor Day—there’s nothing wrong with it, most fashion moguls say, and the “rule” has always been rather arbitrary. Instead, you should “wear what’s appropriate,” the Emily Post Institute says, “for the weather, the season, or the occasion.”

8. Labor Day is a dangerous day to be on the road.

Because so many people travel during Labor Day weekend (over 35 million, according to a AAA study), roads tend to be much more crowded—and because of that, they're more dangerous. According to data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, the U.S. saw an average of 308 fatal car accidents per year during Labor Day weekends from 2011 to 2015. That’s second only to the average number of fatal accidents seen during Memorial Day weekend (approximately 312 per year).

This Course Will Teach You How to Play Guitar Like a Pro for $29

BartekSzewczyk/iStock via Getty Images
BartekSzewczyk/iStock via Getty Images

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12 Things You Might Not Know About Juneteenth

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

There's more than one Independence Day in the U.S. On June 19, 1865, General Gordon Granger rode into Galveston, Texas, and announced enslaved people were now free. Since then, June 19 has been celebrated as Juneteenth across the nation. Here's what you should know about the historic event and celebration.

1. Enslaved people had already been emancipated—they just didn’t know it.

The June 19 announcement came more than two and a half years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. So technically, from the Union's perspective, the 250,000 enslaved people in Texas were already free—but none of them were aware of it, and no one was in a rush to inform them.

2. There are many theories as to why the Emancipation Proclamation wasn’t enforced in Texas.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendering to Union General Ulysses S Grant at the close of the American Civil War, at the Appomattox Court House in Virginia on April 9, 1865.
Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendering to Union General Ulysses S Grant at the close of the American Civil War, at the Appomattox Court House in Virginia on April 9, 1865.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

News traveled slowly back in those days—it took Confederate soldiers in western Texas more than two months to hear that Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox. Still, some have struggled to explain the 30-month gap between Lincoln’s proclamation and the enslaved people’s freedom, leading to speculation that some Texans suppressed the announcement. Other theories include that the original messenger was murdered to prevent the information from being relayed or that the federal government purposely delayed the announcement to Texas to get one more cotton harvest out of the enslaved workers. But the real reason is probably that Lincoln's proclamation simply wasn't enforceable in the rebel states before the end of the war.

3. The announcement actually urged freedmen and freedwomen to stay with their former owners.

General Order No. 3, as read by General Granger, said:

"The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere."

4. What followed was known as “the scatter.”


Internet Archive Book Images, Flickr // No known copyright restrictions

Most freedpeople weren't terribly interested in staying with the people who had enslaved them, even if pay was involved. In fact, some were leaving before Granger had finished making the announcement. What followed became known as "the scatter,," when droves of former enslaved people left the state to find family members or more welcoming accommodations in northern regions.

5. Not all enslaved people were freed instantly.

Texas is a large state, and General Granger's order (and the troops needed to enforce it) were slow to spread. According to historian James Smallwood, many enslavers deliberately suppressed the information until after the harvest, and some beyond that. In July 1867 there were two separate reports of enslaved people being freed, and one report of a Texas horse thief named Alex Simpson whose enslaved people were only freed after his hanging in 1868.

6. Freedom created other problems.

Despite the announcement, Texas slave owners weren't too eager to part with what they felt was their property. When freedpeople tried to leave, many of them were beaten, lynched, or murdered. "They would catch [freed slaves] swimming across [the] Sabine River and shoot them," a former enslaved person named Susan Merritt recalled.

7. There were limited options for celebrating.

A monument in Houston's Emancipation Park.
A monument in Houston's Emancipation Park.
2C2KPhotography, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

When freedpeople tried to celebrate the first anniversary of the announcement a year later, they were faced with a problem: Segregation laws were expanding rapidly, and there were no public places or parks they were permitted to use. So, in the 1870s, former enslaved people pooled together $800 and purchased 10 acres of land, which they deemed "Emancipation Park." It was the only public park and swimming pool in the Houston area that was open to African Americans until the 1950s.

8. Juneteenth celebrations waned for several decades.

It wasn't because people no longer wanted to celebrate freedom—but, as Slate so eloquently put it, "it's difficult to celebrate freedom when your life is defined by oppression on all sides." Juneteenth celebrations waned during the era of Jim Crow laws until the civil rights movement of the 1960s, when the Poor People's March planned by Martin Luther King Jr. was purposely scheduled to coincide with the date. The march brought Juneteenth back to the forefront, and when march participants took the celebrations back to their home states, the holiday was reborn.

9. Texas was the first state to declare Juneteenth a state holiday.

Texas deemed the holiday worthy of statewide recognition in 1980, becoming the first state to do so.

10. Juneteeth is still not a federal holiday.

Though most states now officially recognize Juneteenth, it's still not a national holiday. As a senator, Barack Obama co-sponsored legislation to make Juneteenth a national holiday, though it didn't pass then or while he was president. One supporter of the idea is 93-year-old Opal Lee—in 2016, when she was 90, Lee began walking from state to state to draw attention to the cause.

11. The Juneteenth flag is full of symbolism.

a mock-up of the Juneteenth flag
iStock

Juneteenth flag designer L.J. Graf packed lots of meaning into her design. The colors red, white, and blue echo the American flag to symbolize that the enslaved people and their descendants were Americans. The star in the middle pays homage to Texas, while the bursting "new star" on the "horizon" of the red and blue fields represents a new freedom and a new people.

12. Juneteenth traditions vary across the U.S.

As the tradition of Juneteenth spread across the U.S., different localities put different spins on celebrations. In southern states, the holiday is traditionally celebrated with oral histories and readings, "red soda water" or strawberry soda, and barbecues. Some states serve up Marcus Garvey salad with red, green, and black beans, in honor of the black nationalist. Rodeos have become part of the tradition in the southwest, while contests, concerts, and parades are a common theme across the country.