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As we head into the long weekend that marks the end of the summer (not technically, but you know what I mean), many of us will “celebrate” Labor Day with an extra day off, a little day drinking and a backyard BBQ. But unlike Memorial Day, the holiday that ushers in summer while also remembering the people who died while serving in the country’s armed forces, most of us don’t have a freaking clue what the purpose of Labor Day actually is.
So let’s start at the beginning, shall we? The beginning, in this case, is September 1882. Women in England have just gotten the right to buy, own and sell property, and to keep their own earnings (and yet 136 years, we still don’t have the right to get the same earnings for the same work as men but that’s a story for another day), Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture has just debuted in Moscow, and here in the U.S., Thomas Edison has just flipped on the switch at the country’s first commercial electrical power plant, which lit one square mile of lower Manhattan, paving the way for today’s world of never being able to find a plug for your iPhone charger at the bar.
Speaking of Manhattan, a covert meeting of the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor was just convening in the city in those early days of September. The KOL, as it was known because its full name sounded super creepy, was the largest and most important American labor organizations at the time, and accepted workers from all occupations…except bankers, land speculators, lawyers, liquor dealers and gamblers. Because, you know, those types of people can’t be trusted. The Knights’ primary demands were for an eight-hour workday (which the invention of email and cell phones would eventually kill), an end to child and convict labor, and a graduated income tax.
For reasons unbeknownst to me, or any place I could find on the internet, the KOL decided that the least auspicious way to mark their secret NYC meeting was with a parade. The spectacle was held on Tuesday, September 5, 1882 and featured various local labor unions. After the success of the event, Matthew Maguire, the Secretary of the Central Labor Union of New York, proposed that a national “Labor Day” holiday to be held on the first Monday of each September, because that whole parade-on-a-Tuesday thing was a giant pain in the ass.
It took a while for people to catch on; the first state to actually adopt Labor Day was Oregon five years later in 1887, because the people of the Second Industrial Revolution apparently didn’t like three-day weekends. Labor Day, honoring “the American labor movement and the contributions that workers have made to the strength, prosperity, laws and well-being of the country” (thanks, Wikipedia), was formally made a federal holiday in 1934, and the three-day “official” end of summer was born.
And so there we have it. TL:DR? Basically, we get a day off to honor the fact that we work a lot. So chug a beer, enjoy the last rays of summer shine, and give a toast to Matthew Maguire and the good ol’ KOL, because without them, we’d all be working on Monday..