Honoring the American Worker: A History of Labor Day

Honoring the American Worker: A History of Labor Day
September 1, 2020 By: Kelsie Paul, Manager of School Learning

Honoring the American Worker: A History of Labor Day

Each year in the United States, Labor Day is observed on the first Monday in September. For many, the long weekend marks the official closing of summer, a bookend to the season that was opened with the celebration of Memorial Day in May. Labor Day is often celebrated with barbecues and parades—one final chance to soak up the sun before the onset of the school year and the coming of autumn. Like Memorial Day, Labor Day was founded with a deeper purpose than to mark the passing of a season. As the name implies, Labor Day was created to honor American workers, namely tradespeople and manual laborers. It is an interesting concept to consider, coming from a museum founded in honor of an industrialist with a notoriously strained relationship with the labor movement. In many ways, though, it is fitting to examine the history of Labor Day in this space. The Frick family witnessed first-hand and benefitted from the rise of industrialization in the United States, and Henry Clay Frick directly shaped labor and business practices in the late 19th century. Their lives were inextricably linked and, in many ways defined, at least in Frick’s case, by the circumstances and the conflicts from which Labor Day was born.

Just as Memorial Day traces its history to the final days of the Civil War (you can read about the origins of Memorial Day here), Labor Day, too, finds its origins in a period of great change and upheaval in American history. Labor Day was conceived by the very workers it was founded to honor, at a time when the American economy was booming, and the employment landscape was changing quickly and drastically. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, industrialization and the rise of mass production transformed the United States. The center of American life shifted from rural agriculture to urban production, and workers, including an influx of European immigrants, flooded the nation’s growing city centers looking for new opportunities. Men like Henry Clay Frick, Andrew Carnegie, and John D. Rockefeller, just to name a few, capitalized on this new world of industry and innovation, and it made them millionaires. At the same time, the people on whom they relied—their workers—struggled for a basic livelihood. During this period, worker protections were essentially non-existent. 12-hour workdays were commonplace, and safety regulations were rare. Ever-evolving advancements in technology increased production and made skilled labor less necessary, so worker wages remained low even as profits skyrocketed. As time went on, workers became increasingly fed up with these conditions. Looking for support and a way to vocalize their concerns and demands to their bosses, labor unions rose in prominence in many industries.

The first organized “workingmen’s holiday” took place on September 5, 1882. Organized by the Central Labor Union, thousands of workers in New York City took unpaid time off to march through the city in an effort to draw attention to labor issues and demonstrate “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations.” This march is widely considered to be the first Labor Day parade, and soon the practice spread across the country with an increasing number of states passing legislation to officially recognize the holiday. Although the date and location of the first Labor Day is generally agreed upon, there is debate over which individual gets credit for the idea in the first place. Two men that were active in the labor movement, Peter J. McGuire, a member of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and cofounder of the American Federation of Labor, and Matthew Maguire, a machinist and secretary for the Central Labor Union, have both been identified as the holiday’s possible founder. The records are unclear. However, Matthew Maquire’s connection to the Central Labor Union, which organized the first Labor Day events, lends weight to his claim.

This newspaper article describes the events of the first “workingmen’s holiday” in New York City, including a list of the more than 50 unions that participated. Despite the claim that the event was smaller than anticipated, the article estimates the attendance at 10,000. New-York Tribune, September 6, 1882. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Even as Labor Day celebrations became more common across the country, labor tensions in the nation’s industrial centers increased in the years following the holiday’s inception. The last two decades of the 19th century were marked by increased activity in the labor movement as American workers and the unions that represented them pushed back against low pay, dangerous work conditions, and inhumane work hours. Efforts to unionize and strikes protesting unfair treatment led to tense showdowns between company management and workers, which often resulted in violence. In 1886, a strike at the McCormick Reaper Works in Chicago led to clashes between workers and law enforcement, resulting in the Haymarket Riot, which left several police officers and civilians dead or wounded. The incident and its fallout drew national attention to the labor movement, and it was only the first of the many intense, high-profile labor showdowns that would follow.

The events in Haymarket Square, including the bomb that killed several police officers (depicted above), turned public sentiment against the labor movement and stoked fear of an “anarchist” uprising among workers. “The Anarchist Riot in Chicago- A Dynamite Bomb exploding among police McCormick Strike, Haymarket Square, 1886,” published in Harper’s Weekly, May 15, 1886. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Friction between labor unions and the Carnegie Steel Company brewed for decades at the Homestead Steel Works in Pittsburgh before exploding into violence in the summer of 1892. Homestead was made up of not only the steelworks, but also a mill town where workers had built a tightknit community with strong ties to the labor unions. Workers at Homestead believed that they had a right to their jobs, their unions, and wages that reflected the profits made possible by their labor. Andrew Carnegie, the company’s owner, and his partners, including Henry Clay Frick, disagreed. This was not Frick’s first tangle with labor unions; his reputation as a hard-nosed, staunch opponent of labor was already well established, but it would be cemented that summer. On June 29, 1892, after prolonged negotiations over wages and acting on Carnegie’s orders, Frick shut down the steelworks and announced that union workers would no longer be employed at Homestead. What came next deserves a longer and more in-depth treatment than can be afforded here, but a brief summary of the events is as follows. Workers barricaded the mill and the town, so Frick called in agents from the Pinkerton National Detective Agency to regain control. When the agents attempted to enter Homestead, violence erupted, resulting in ten deaths and many more injuries. Intervention from the Pennsylvania State Militia was required to restore order, and in the end, management won—the mill reopened and the events at Homestead effectively broke the labor union’s influence in the steel industry for decades. Frick never recorded a detailed explanation of his actions relating to Homestead, nor did he write at length about his feelings on the labor movement. What is clear from his correspondence with Carnegie in July of 1892 is that Frick believed two things. First, he was confident that the issue would be resolved quickly, and he never imagined it would come to violence, telling Carnegie that he expected the Pinkertons to take the mill “without any trouble.” Second, he believed he was doing his job, and the company was well within their right to “attempt to guard and protect our property.” 2 Regardless of Frick’s personal feelings on the matter, from that point on, his name and reputation were forever tied to the Battle of Homestead.


The events at Homestead, including the surrender of the Pinkerton agents sent to retake the mill (depicted above), drew national attention. “The labor troubles at Homestead, Pa.- Attack of the strikers and their sympathizers on the surrendered Pinkerton men/ drawn by Miss G.A. Davis, from a sketch by C. Upham,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly, July 14, 1892. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Conflict arose again in Chicago two years later, when workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company went on strike over wage cuts and anti-union sentiment on the part of management. In addition to the strike, the American Railroad Union organized a nationwide boycott of Pullman railroad cars, grinding railway traffic to a halt and negatively impacting the economy, which relied on the railroads to transport products. In a desperate attempt to repair labor relations, Congress turned to a holiday that had been long recognized at the state level and was now more than a decade old. Congress finally acted to make Labor Day a national holiday, and President Grover Cleveland signed the bill into law in June 1894. While federal recognition of Labor Day could be considered a show of goodwill, it did nothing to address workers’ overall concerns, nor did it rectify the situation in Chicago. Weeks after federally recognizing Labor Day and almost two years to the day after the Pinkertons landed at Homestead, federal troops were sent to Chicago to break the strike. As was to be expected, military intervention led to violent clashes with workers and a number of deaths. A few weeks later, the strike dwindled as Pullman brought in non-union workers, and the trains began to move once again. Like in Homestead, the result of the strike disintegrated the union’s influence in the railroad industry, but the fight for workers’ rights across the nation continued. It took several more decades for issues like the eight-hour workday, injured workers’ benefits, and the outlawing of child labor to be implemented by the federal government. 

Efforts to recognize Labor Day as a national holiday were announced alongside other headlines relating to the Pullman strike in Chicago. “National Now,” Rock Island Argus, June 22, 1894. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Members of Edgewater Steel march in the Oakmont Labor Day parade with a giant American flag, September 2, 1918. Courtesy of the Oakmont Historical Image Collection, Oakmont Carnegie Library.

As the struggle over fair labor continued, Labor Day remained an important opportunity for American workers and their families to celebrate their contributions to the nation with parades, speeches, and picnics. As a center of production, the home of several prominent Gilded Age industrialists, and a crucible for the labor movement, it should come as no surprise that Pittsburgh has a strong connection to Labor Day. For several decades, the city has boasted the largest Labor Day parade in the nation, welcoming an estimated 50,000 participants in 2019. As COVID-19 continues to change the way we do things, this year’s Labor Day will likely look much different than it has in years past. One thing is certain—this pandemic, with all of its challenges, has highlighted the importance of those that we now call “essential workers,” the people who do the jobs we can’t do without. While Labor Day may look different in 2020, perhaps in some ways, its true purpose takes on renewed meaning this year.


1 “History of Labor Day,” U.S. Department of Labor.

2 “Frick writes on the Homestead strike, the arrival of Pinkerton men, strike breakers, and newspaper sympathy for strikers.” Henry Clay Frick to Andrew Carnegie, July 4, 1892. Henry Clay Frick Business Records, IV. Carnegie Steel Company, 1892-1900, University of Pittsburgh.

Additional sources:

“Haymarket Riot,” History.com, originally published December 16, 2009, updated May 1, 2020.

“Labor Day,” History.com, originally published April 13, 2010, updated July 7, 2020.

Maureen Hartwell, “Pittsburgh’s Labor Day legacy continues to evolve,” The Pitt News, September 2, 2019.

Melvin I. Urofsky, “Pullman Strike,” Britannica.com, last updated July 16, 2020.

Paul Krause, “Rethinking the Homestead Lockout on the Fourth of July,” Pittsburgh History, Summer 1992, Volume 75, Number 2, pages 53-58.

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