Labor Day is a bit of a misnomer. While it may seem like a day devoted to work, many workers in the United States and Canada don’t work at all on Labor Day.
Labor Day is much more than the unofficial end to summer. Labor Day weekend tends to be the last big travel weekend before the holiday season, benefitting towns and businesses that cater to tourists. But while road trips and backyard barbecues are now staples of Labor Day, the origins of the holiday bear little resemblance to the celebrations of today.
Labor Day in the United States dates back to the 19th century, though its origins are still debated by historians. According to the United States Department of Labor, recent research supports the idea that Labor Day was the brainchild of machinist Matthew Maguire, who supposedly devised the idea in 1882 while serving as secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York. Others attribute the holiday to Peter J. McGuire, a cofounder of the American Federation of Labor and general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners.
Historians say the first Labor Day was celebrated on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 1882, in New York. This was based on plans from Maguire’s Central Labor Union. Other states and cities would eventually adopt the first Monday in September as Labor Day. As labor unions grew, other cities started celebrating Labor Day, which McGuire suggested should be a day to honor those “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.”
Soon the popularity of Labor Day grew and recognition by the government followed. By 1885, municipal ordinances recognizing Labor Day had been passed, and they inspired state legislation. While Labor Day was first celebrated in New York, in 1887 the state of Oregon became the first state to officially pass a law recognizing the first Monday of September as Labor Day. New York, along with Colorado, Massachusetts and New Jersey, implemented Labor Day observations soon after.
On June 28, 1894, Congress officially passed an act that declared the first Monday in September of each year a legal holiday. This applied to all states as well as the District of Columbia. Labour Day also is celebrated on the first Monday of September in Canada, where the day celebrates workers and the labor union movement.