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Thursday, September 1, 2016

Postcard Thursday: Labor Day

If you've ever taken our tour of Union Square and environs, you may be familiar with the above picture. It depicts the very first Labor Day parade on September 5, 1882. Though the parade wended its way from City Hall to Union Square and finally up to 42nd Street, it's Union Square that is most associated with the events of that day, perhaps because of this image. (Union Square became so connected to the American labor movement that you will sometimes hear that the "union" the square is named after is a labor union. That's not true: the small square marked the place where Broadway and the Bowery met on the original 1811 grid plan of the city.)

The history of Labor Day in America is muddled. Many -- including the AFLCIO -- claim the holiday was the brainchild of Peter J. McGuire, the founder of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America. Others claim Matthew Maguire of Paterson, New Jersey, was instrumental in getting the holiday adopted. Certainly Maguire led the parade in 1822, sitting beside noted abolitionist preacher Henry Ward Beecher of Brooklyn in the lead carriage.

By 1894, Labor Day was a national holiday, despite the fact that May Day was associated with labor in many parts of the world. Eight years earlier, on May 4, 1886, in Chicago, a rally to support striking workers turned into a riot when someone threw dynamite at the police. Quickly dubbed the "Haymarket Affair," the events became the catalyst for turning May 1 into an International Workers' Day -- a day often marked by protest. To distinguish the new Labor Day holiday from the violence of Haymarket -- and divorce it from any questions of labor unrest -- the Cleveland administration instead picked the early September date of New York's commemoration. Within a few decades, it would come to signal the unofficial end of summer.

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