Labor Day in the United States: History & Major Facts

Labor Day, celebrated on the first Monday of September in the U.S., honors the American labor movement and recognizes laborers’ contributions to the nation’s development and achievements. Image: An 1894 photo of Labor Day parade in Washington, D.C.

In our nation, Labor Day’s origins trace back to the early 1880s, during a period of significant growth in trade unions and labor movements. Various labor groups proposed different days to celebrate labor, leading to the establishment of a holiday in September.

The first notable Labor Day event took place in 1882, linked to a secretive meeting of the Knights of Labor in New York City. Following this meeting, a public parade was organized on September 5 by the Central Labor Union (CLU) of New York, showcasing the strength and solidarity of the labor movement.

Conflicting Claims

The inception of Labor Day is surrounded by conflicting accounts regarding its founder. Two predominant theories exist, each supported by descendants of Matthew Maguire and Peter J. McGuire, who both claim their ancestor as the holiday’s true originator.

Matthew Maguire, then secretary of the CLU, is credited with proposing the holiday after the successful 1882 parade.

In contrast, Peter J. McGuire, vice president of the American Federation of Labor, reportedly got the idea after witnessing labor celebrations in Toronto and proposed a similar celebration in the spring of 1882.

Labor Day originated in the late 19th century from the growth of the trade union and labor movements, with the first parade held in New York City by the Central Labor Union and the Knights of Labor. Image: An illustration depicting the first labor parade in the US.

Peter J. McGuire’s Contribution

Peter J. McGuire’s account suggests that he proposed the holiday to the Central Labor Union in New York City on May 8, 1882, envisioning a day that would include a street parade and a picnic to strengthen communal ties and raise funds for the unions. He suggested the first Monday in September for its ideal weather and strategic position between Independence Day and Thanksgiving.

Formal Recognition

The idea quickly gained traction, and the celebration became more structured with picnics, speeches by labor leaders, and extensive public participation. In 1887, Oregon was the first state to make Labor Day an official public holiday, and by 1894, it was recognized as a federal holiday in thirty states thanks to the efforts of the labor movement and the growing recognition of workers’ contributions.

Selection of September

The origins of May 1st as International Workers’ Day can be traced back to the 1885 convention of the American Federation of Labor. A resolution was passed to advocate for an eight-hour workday starting from May 1, 1886, with strikes envisioned as a means to enforce this demand.

The selection of May 1st aligned with its significance in European traditions as May Day, a folk holiday. This date, however, gained a radical reputation due to its proximity to the violent Haymarket affair on May 4, 1886, which left a profound imprint on labor movements worldwide.

At the time, there was contention among labor unions about the appropriate date to honor workers. While some favored the existing September celebration with its less confrontational, picnic-and-parade approach, others pushed for May 1st, recognizing its growing political significance.

Concerned about the potential for May 1st to bolster socialist and anarchist movements due to its association with Haymarket, U.S. President Grover Cleveland advocated for a September Labor Day. He supported this as a safer, less controversial alternative, culminating in the establishment of Labor Day as a federal holiday in September 1894, distancing it from the radical connotations of May 1st.

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Did you know…?

  • Canada’s Labour Day, like its American counterpart, falls on the first Monday of September.
  • In over 150 countries, International Workers’ Day is observed on May 1st, known as May Day in Europe.

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Labor Sunday

In 1909, the American Federation of Labor introduced Labor Sunday, the day before Labor Day, dedicated to the spiritual and educational aspects of the labor movement.

While Labor Sunday did not become as popular as Labor Day, it represents the broader cultural and social recognition of the labor movement’s contributions to American society.


What and when is Labor Day in the United States?

Labor Day is a federal holiday in the United States celebrated on the first Monday of September. It honors and recognizes the American labor movement and the contributions of laborers to the nation’s development and achievements.

Why is Labor Day celebrated on the first Monday of September?

The date was chosen to provide a break between Independence Day and Thanksgiving and to offer workers a long weekend towards the end of the summer. It also distances the celebration from International Workers’ Day on May 1, which has more socialist and anarchist connotations.

Who founded Labor Day?

Labor Day was proposed by Matthew Maguire, a machinist, while he was serving as secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York. Others credit Peter J. McGuire, co-founder of the American Federation of Labor. There is some debate over who exactly proposed the holiday first.

What was the first state to recognize Labor Day as a holiday?

Oregon was the first state to make Labor Day an official public holiday in 1887.

When did Labor Day become a federal holiday?

Labor Day became a federal holiday in 1894 when President Grover Cleveland signed the legislation into law, largely as a gesture to reconcile with the labor movement following the Pullman Strike.

How is Labor Day celebrated?

Labor Day is typically celebrated with parades, picnics, barbecues, fireworks displays, and other public gatherings. Many people take advantage of the long weekend for leisure activities or family trips.

Is Labor Day the same as International Workers’ Day?

No, Labor Day in the United States is not the same as International Workers’ Day, which is celebrated on May 1 around the world. The U.S. Labor Day is more a celebration of workers and their rights, minus the more overt political demonstrations associated with May 1.

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What is the significance of Labor Day sales?

Labor Day weekend is known for being one of the largest sales weekends of the year, when retailers offer significant discounts on various goods, particularly summer items and back-to-school supplies.

Does everyone get Labor Day off?

While Labor Day is a federal holiday, and many employees in the public and private sectors receive the day off, there are still many workers, particularly in essential services (like healthcare and retail), who may work on Labor Day.

Why are white clothes traditionally not worn after Labor Day?

The tradition of not wearing white after Labor Day is considered outdated by many, but it originated from an old custom in which the upper class would return to the city from vacation and stow away their lightweight, white summer clothes as they returned to school and work.

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Other interesting facts about Labor Day in the United States

Labor Day as the “Unofficial End of Summer”

Labor Day is widely regarded as the unofficial conclusion of summer in the United States, a period when many Americans take their final vacations of the season. The holiday weekend is often packed with various activities marking a transition from summer leisure to the onset of autumn routines.

Back to School and Amusement Parks

Many U.S. school districts time the beginning of the school year around the Labor Day holiday. Some start classes the week before, making Labor Day weekend the first three-day break of the academic year, while others commence the following Tuesday.

In states like Virginia, the amusement park industry has influenced school start dates, lobbying for laws that delay the academic year to extend the tourism season. This practice was encapsulated in Virginia’s “Kings Dominion law,” although it was repealed in 2019.

State Specific Traditions

In Minnesota, the State Fair concludes on Labor Day, with state laws typically delaying the start of school to allow participation in the fair, especially for children involved in 4-H projects.

Sports and Labor Day

Labor Day weekend is a significant time for sports in America. It signals the start of the fall sports season, with NCAA football teams playing their first games and the NFL kicking off shortly after. Auto racing events like the Southern 500 and the NHRA U.S. Nationals are traditional fixtures. Additionally, the U.S. Open tennis championships are in full swing in New York.

Fashion and Cultural Events

Labor Day historically marks the last acceptable day to wear white or seersucker in fashion, a notion rooted in old social customs of the upper class. Major cities host special events such as New York’s Labor Day Carnival and Washington’s free concert featuring the National Symphony Orchestra.

Labor Day Sales

Labor Day weekend is crucial for retailers, offering significant sales, particularly for back-to-school supplies. Many businesses report high sales volumes, comparable only to the Black Friday shopping period, leveraging the large numbers of consumers available to shop during the long weekend.

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