Our theme this year at the Farms is all about celebrating recreation and fun in 18th and 19th century Iowa, so I thought it would be interesting to look at the origins of Labor Day, widely considered the last big weekend of summer fun here in the Midwest. Today, Labor Day stands as the “unofficial” end of summer, though many school children are already back in the classroom by Labor Day weekend. Still, a nice three day weekend means that families can travel or have one last hurray before the business of the fall and winter season gets started. Campgrounds fill up for the weekend, and towns and communities across the US (and Canada!) host festivals and parades. England even has a similar event, a bank holiday weekend (although it is held the last Monday of August). This year predictions from AAA put as many as 33 million Americans traveling over Labor Day weekend. Whether you are hitting the lake, flying to the beach, or coming to visit us at the here at the Farms (we are open Saturday and Sunday), you are in good company.
So, who do we have to thank for an extra day of rest at the start of every September? We aren’t quite sure. The American Department of Labor recognizes the activities of two different men, both in 1882, for starting the idea of a “Labor Day.” The first celebration was held in September of 1882 in New York City. By the end of 1887, five states had legislatively recognized the holiday with Oregon being the first. Less than 10 years later, June 28, 1894, Congress recognized the first Monday in September as a national holiday. For more specific information visit the Department of Labor Website.
The first proposals called for a parade, recreation, and amusement for workers and their families. The Industrial Revolution had changed the nature of work, especially in cities, by the 1890s, and Labor Unions were successfully gaining rights for their members. In addition, during these early celebrations the unions could use the festivities for education and to recruit support from the workers. While the exact proceedings of the holiday have changed over time, Labor Day is still a holiday devoted to the workingman, and a well-earned day of rest.
An interesting topic of study, U.S. Labor History finds it’s origins in Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676, before we were even called the United States. Matters became heated as Industrialization and the rise of Capitalism of the latter part of the 19th century affect the relationships between employers and employees. Labor Day, of course, is not the only effect of labor relations and events of the Industrial time period. American standards of 40 hour work weeks and 8 hour work days are products of this era as different unions went on strike for the rights of working men, women, and children of the time.
Formed in 1886, the American Federation of Labor still “works every day to improve the lives of people who work.” Working as the AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations) since 1955, the body assists in job creation, training, and education, promoting fair policies between workers and corporations, and reforming trade in a modern economy, according to their website. They are just one example of a labor group formed in the late 19th century, that continues the causes of working men and women. Find more information about the AFL-CIO here.
The AFL-CIO also has an interesting timeline of Labor History, including their story of the origins of Labor Day here.
While labor uprisings were happening in the cities in the 19th century, it should be noted that there was still work to do on the farm. Here are a few entries from Sarah Gillespie’s diary from September, 1880 and 1885:
1880 Saturday. 4. …Ma & Pa went to town 9:30 A.M. got back 3:30 P.M…she got some peaches 1 box $1.00 canned the most of the them, i.e. (preserves and pickles.) to night (4 grts).
1885 Friday. 18. Am all alone. Ma & I cut out part of my new black cashmere & brocade dress…I went to work & got dinner.
Canning peaches and sewing a dress were the work of the farm ladies in September, highlighting the differences between cities and rural areas in the 19th century. A day off was not mentioned, nor likely considered. Chores would have to be done on the farm, regardless of what the government and the newspapers said. That is still the case today; ask a dairy farmer, and they’ll tell you that even with automatic milking machines, cows cannot milk themselves.
So whether your day of rest includes travel with the 32,999,999 other Americans, a grilled steak with the neighbors, or milking cows: enjoy your day. If you don’t have to work, thank the industrious workers and their unions of the 1880s and 1890s, for proposing a day off.