Labor day is Monday September 7, 2020.

If you’re like most Americans, you’ll be celebrating your day off with friends and family, serving food off the grill, and getting a final weekend of sun in before the weather turns.

But Labor Day is much more than an opportunity to char some brats. It’s a holiday with deep ties to manufacturing. Given that we’re trying to empower the people who make our world in the present, we figured this weekend is a good time to look at manufacturing history. 

Barbecue spread
People around the country will fire up the grill this labor day

In Recognition of Workers’ Rights

The first Labor Day was celebrated on September 5, 1882 in New York. Over the next few decades, all states came to recognize Labor Day as an official holiday. 

That recognition, however, was hard won. Before the states and federal government codified Labor Day as an annual holiday, workers pressed for nearly a century for better working conditions.

The Industrial Revolution and Early Workers’ Movements

The roots of Labor Day took hold in the early 19th Century, during the First Industrial Revolution

With the advent of new technologies like the steam engine and assembly line, America’s economy shifted from agriculture to industry. Increasingly, workers left field work for factory work. Throughout the 1800s, the number of workers in agriculture sharply declined, while the number of workers in industrial positions climbed. By the early 20th Century, industry eclipsed agriculture as the largest employer of Americans. 

graph showing the growth of industry and decline of agriculture over time.
Source: Robert E. Gallman and Thomas J. Weiss. “The Service Industries in the Nineteenth Century.” In Production and Productivity in the Service Industries, ed. Victor R. Fuchs, 287-352. New York: Columbia University Press, 1969.

While they paid better than agriculture, early industrial jobs were grueling and dangerous. In the 1830s, the average manufacturing worker labored a 70 hour work week, often without a day off. Because the labor market wasn’t well regulated, manufacturers worked long hours for little pay with no protections. Contemporary manufacturing machines were “extraordinarily risky by modern standards.”

image of an old manufacturing machine
19th century manufacturing machines lacked the safety mechanisms of their modern counterparts

Workers in extractive industries faired little better. The mortality rates for American miners were double that of those of European nations. Accidents were considered cheap by employers. It was often less expensive to pay the penalties for injuries and fatalities than it was to raise wages or invest in safer worker conditions. 

Workers didn’t stand for these poor conditions for long. Across the 19th Century, labor organizations increased in number and grew in strength. Organizations like the AFL-CIO sprang up to help unify disparate labor groups, and to consolidate power into a viable movement. 

Together, these groups worked to improve working conditions, increase leisure time, and raise the wages of working people. 

The First Holiday

While there are competing theories about the first Labor Day, it’s accepted that the first workers’ holiday was held in New York City in 1882. Whether it was a celebration of a successful public demonstration or a holiday to be celebrated as such, the idea of setting aside a day to recognize the contributions and dignity of workers took hold. 

The 1886 Haymarket riots provided additional impetus to the September holiday. With more radical labor groups looking to size on the May anniversary of the violent incident as an annual day protest, the Cleveland administration put its support around the September holiday. 

In 1887, Oregon announced that it would recognize Labor Day as a State holiday, and within a decade over thirty states had followed suit. 

Since, we’ve celebrated the first Monday in September as a national holiday. 

Celebrating Workers

So as you make your holiday weekend plans, try to celebrate in the true spirit of Labor Day. Take the opportunity to disconnect and enjoy life outside the factory or the office. 

And take a moment to think of the workers who helped defend the dignity of work–manufacturing and otherwise–for everyone.