The NCSL Blog


By Lesley Kennedy

So, yes, you know the first Monday in September means, for most of us, a day off from work and school. (All together, now: Hooray!) And maybe you also know that Labor Day is a tribute to, as the U.S. Department of Labor says, “the contributions American workers have made to the strength, prosperity and well-being of our country.”

Suffragettes Labor Day March 1913 ImageBut if things start to get foggy beyond that, we’ve rounded up nine facts about the annual federal holiday sure to impress your barbecue guests as you celebrate the unofficial end of summer with a slew of cigars and beer kegs, just as the day’s founders intended (read on to No. 3 for more on that). Now, let’s get to work!

  1. Giving birth to the first Labor Day. The inaugural holiday, planned by the Central Labor Union, took place on Sept. 5, 1882, in New York City, with workers taking unpaid time off to celebrate.
  2. Toil and trouble. You think you spend too much time at your job? In the late 1800s, the American workday averaged 12 hours, with seven-day weeks. The Adamson Act’s eight-hour workday didn’t pass until 1916.
  3. We love a parade. A highlight of that first Labor Day included a rather chaotic march through lower Manhattan, with reports of 10,000 to 20,000 participants. The New York Times painted the scene with this account: "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." If only we could have been a fly on the wall at the parade after-party, which included speeches, a picnic, an “abundance” of cigars and “lager beer kegs ... mounted in every conceivable place." Cheers!
  4. What’s in a name? The founder of Labor Day remains unclear thanks to similar name spellings: Some give the honor to Peter J. McGuire, who cofounded the American Federation of Labor, but others say it goes to the Central Labor Union’s Matthew Maguire.
  5. Creating a tradition. The Central Labor Union kept the holiday rolling with a second Labor Day celebration on Sept. 5, 1883, and, in 1884, the group asked other labor organizations and cities to recognize a “workingman’s holiday” on the first Monday in September.
  6. Let’s make it official. The first state to designate Labor Day a public holiday? Oregon, in 1887. That same year, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey and Colorado also enacted Labor Day legislation. Although 30 states had already passed legislation recognizing it as a holiday, Labor Day was made a federal holiday in 1894, signed by President Grover Cleveland, and following the violence surrounding the Pullman railroad strike in Chicago. The bill was introduced to Congress by South Dakota Senator James Henderson Kyle.
  7. Canada beat us to it. Labor Day was officially recognized in Toronto in 1872. And other countries have joined in on honoring working people: May 1, also known as International Workers’ Day, dates to 1886, and is celebrated across the globe—from Algeria to Argentina to Albania to Australia.
  8. Power in numbers. And just who, exactly, are we celebrating? More than 160 million U.S. civilian workers.
  9. Now, about wearing white … You've heard the fashion rule: You can’t wear white after Labor Day. Historians point to good ol’ late 19th-century snobbery for the axiom—white clothing was reserved for summer weddings and vacations (especially among the elite). Of course, today’s fashionistas know it’s totally acceptable to wear white year-round. As Katharine Hepburn, who could rock a pair of winter-white slacks better than anyone, once said, “If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun.”


Lesley Kennedy is an editor at NCSL.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.