On the first Monday in September – which happens to be Monday, 4th September this year – the US celebrates Labor Day (without the British "u"), which is a federal holiday that recognises the American labour movement. Americans often celebrate their labour day weekend (a long three-day weekend just like a UK bank holiday) with parades, picnics, and parties. Let's explore all about Labor Day in the United States.
What is the American labour movement and how did Labour Day originate?
In the late nineteenth century, the trade union and labour movements grew and unionists proposed a "labor day" set aside to celebrate "labor." The Central Labor Union and the Knights of Labor organised the first parade in New York City but Oregon was the first state to make it an official public holiday in 1887.
It became an official federal holiday in 1894 with thirty states officially celebrating and adopting Labor Day. Congress passed a bill recognising the first Monday in September as Labor Day and President Grover Cleveland signed the bill into law on the 28th of June, but the federal law only made it an official holiday for federal workers. But in the 1930s, unions staged strikes to have the day off. Currently, all US states, the District of Columbia, and US territories have made Labor Day a statutory holiday.
In contrast, around the world, over eighty countries celebrate International Workers Day on the 1st of May. There are debates around how labour day started and how it was proposed but one theory said that Peter J. McGuire, a vice president of the American Federation of Labor visited Toronto in May and saw labour day parades in Canada and then in the spring of 1882, he proposed a labour day in the US to the fledgling Central Labor Union, hoping for a "general holiday for the labouring classes."
McGuire recommended that Labor Day should start with street parades, a public demonstration of organised labour's solidarity and strength, and a picnic where participating local unions could sell fundraiser tickets with early May proposed because of the optimum weather conditions and its midway date.
But other research supports that Matthew Maguire, later secretary of Local 344 of the International Association of Machinists in Paterson, New Jersey, proposed the holiday when he was serving as secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York in 1882.
No matter how it began, Labor Day celebrates the social and economic achievements of American workers, acknowledging the contributions workers have made to America's prosperity, strength, and well-being.
The unofficial end of summer
For Americans, labour day marks the "unofficial end of summer" and the phrase "don't wear white after labour day" is often bandied about. Some say the history of the phrase comes from practicality; others say it was a sign that differentiated the classes.
Before air conditioning in the US was a staple, white and lightweight fabrics were important for warm months and people switched to heavier, darker colours and fabrics in the winter. So some say the phrase originated as people transitioned their clothing from the airy brightness of summer to the autumn and winter months, retiring the whites. The "no white clothing" rule came as more of a division of the change from summer to fall where you're back in the city, back at school, back at work and your wardrobe changes accordingly.
But others speculate that the rule came about because of class divides. Those well-to-do in the early 1900s favoured white linen suits (think the Panama linen suit) and dresses and if you wore white after Labor Day you could afford end-of-summer holidays – where the wealthy of the Upper East Side often head to the Hamptons from June to August. Thus, wearing white post-labour day was a way to show off.
The wealthy could afford holidays and expensive clothes; after all, they didn't have to work to stain their clothes. Whereas middle-class labourers often wore darker colours in the summer to hide the dirt and grime done from labouring. It's also true that a linen suit would be no good for digging sewers, firefighting, or working construction.
By the 1950s, the wealthy had adopted the "no white after labour day" rule to show as a symbol of refinement and to differentiate themselves from the "new money" nouveau riche types. So the wealthier people no longer wore white after labour day as time and fashions passed to show they understood the social rules – essentially they were the mean girls of their day.