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Friday, September 2, 2011

Labor Day - The Working Man's Holiday

In recent years, Labor Day has become a “farewell to summer” holiday, but its true purpose is rooted in honoring the American worker.

Bricklayers probably in Waukegan. Circa 1910. Dunn Museum 63.18.4

Labor Day was first celebrated in New York in 1882. The first Labor Day parade was held on the first Monday in September 1883 by New York workers. Few, if any workers got the day off and were threatened with being fired if they attended the parade. Despite the warning, more than 10,000 workers joined the march. Bricklayers in white aprons paraded with a band playing “Killarney.”

The idea of a “working man’s holiday” spread across the nation. With the growth of labor organizations the holiday became more popular, and in 1885 Labor Day was celebrated in many industrial centers around the country. Oregon was the first state to make Labor Day an official holiday (1887). By 1894, 23 states had adopted the holiday, and Congress passed a law recognizing Labor Day as an official national holiday.

Postcard of Iron Workers' Union family camp grounds in Round Lake, IL. Circa 1912. Photo by C.R. Childs. Dunn Museum M-86.1.710.

The celebrations took the form of a parade exhibiting to the public “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations” followed by a festival with recreation, food and entertainment for workers and their families.

Teamsters Union on parade, Waukegan, circa 1906. Dunn Museum 63.18.2.

Strong support for the American labor movement was especially noticeable in cities dominated by industry such as Chicago. In Illinois, the first workers’ compensation law took effect in May 1912. Before then, workers assumed all risks on the job. If a worker was injured or killed, the employer was not legally responsible.

Page from Chicago & North Western Railroad Injury & Treatment Record Ledger. Notes that engineer, Irwin Stetler, got coal cinders embedded in his left eye, June 1, 1914, and that treatment was begun. Dunn Museum Collections. 

At the United States Sugar Refinery in Waukegan, which operated from 1890 to 1913, workers faced unusually high incidence of death and injury. Over the years, the refinery claimed the lives of 47 people. The single worst industrial accident in Lake County’s history occurred at the refinery on November 25, 1912.

Photo postcard of the U.S. Sugar Refiner, circa 1906. Dunn Museum 92.27.307

An explosion in the starch house resulted in 14 people being killed and 24 injured. With the new compensation law in place, this was the first time in Illinois history that workers and their families could be compensated. 

Fansteel workers using magnifying glasses to examine and sort small objects (possibly phonograph needles), Waukegan, IL 1942. Dunn Museum 2007.28

Though there are few (if any) workers' parades these days, Labor Day remains a tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength and prosperity of our nation.

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