Labor Day is touted as a day when we’re supposed to relax. A holiday “dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers” according to the U.S. Department of Labor, Labor Day is a blessing and a curse.
Celebrated the first Monday of September, it generally means a day off work for adults and the final day of summer vacation for school kids. If you’re into fashion, it’s also the last day you can wear white. But who started Labor Day? Why do we get the day off? To get the answers, we have to go back—waaay back—more than 100 years.
Labor Day’s origins are the source of some debate, but most credit Matthew Maguire with proposing the idea in 1882. Maguire was the secretary of the Central Labor Union (CLU) of New York, the organization that planned and executed the first Labor Day celebration. This took place on September 5, 1882, in New York City, and the following year, the CLU marked the occasion on that same date.
It wasn’t until 1884 that the CLU settled on the first Monday in September and began urging other labor groups to stage their pro-worker celebrations on that day. Meanwhile, other scholars believe Peter J. McGuire—who cofounded the American Federation of Labor and worked as the general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners—was the first to suggest the holiday. Regardless, on Feb. 21, 1887, Oregon became the first state to officially recognize the holiday.
That same year, Colorado, Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey followed suit. Before the end of the decade, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut had also jumped on board, and on June 28, 1894—after 23 additional states had enacted Labor Day legislation—the U.S. Congress made it a national holiday. Congress’ decision came mere days after President Grover Cleveland had deployed 12,000 troops to break up a national railroad strike, and the creation of the holiday was seen as a way to appease the labor movement.
Nowadays, 155.2 million people celebrate Labor Day. That’s the number of Americans aged 16 and older who are part of the work force, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Labor Day celebrations used to center on parades and speeches by prominent men—and in some cities, these remain key features of the holiday—but these days, as fewer people belong to unions, it’s more a day for hitting the beach, attending cookouts, and generally relaxing.
So crack a beer and pull up a chair, y’all. You’ve earned it.