Although Labor Day did not officially become a federal holiday in the United States until 1894, it was first observed as a celebration of the social and economic contribution of workers on September 5, 1882, by the Central Labor Union of New York, Brooklyn, and New Jersey. The CLU itself was established as a trade union nearly twenty years before the 1897 consolidation of the individual boroughs into a single New York City; the union later broke up into a variety of locals which currently fall under the umbrella of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), the largest federation of unions in the U.S.
In 1887, the state of Oregon was the first state to make Labor Day an official holiday. By the time it became a federal holiday seven year later, thirty states had begun to celebrate the holiday. Its federal adoption was actually prompted by an incident during the 1894 Pullman Strike in which U.S. soldiers and marshals were called in by President Grover Cleveland to deal with escalating destructive acts during strike gatherings and on the premise that the strike by railroad workers was preventing mail delivery, violated the Sherman Antitrust Act, and posed a public safety threat. Thirteen strikers ended up killed, and 57 were wounded. The photo above shows striking railroad workers confronting National Guard troops in Chicago during the strike. Once the President reconciled with the labor movement, fears of further conflict led to a rush of legislation through Congress to make Labor Day a national holiday; the legislation was signed into law only six days after the strike’s conclusion.
Although at the time there was already a widespread International Workers’ Day commemorating the 1886 Haymarket Affair (sometimes called the Haymarket massacre, as discussed in an earlier ZOUNDS! post), the date of this commemoration was eschewed in favor of the CLU’s September 5 date so as to avoid the negative emotions attached to the Haymarket Affair. Today, all U.S. states and territories, including the District of Columbia, have made Labor Day an official holiday.
This date is also viewed symbolically as the end of summer, even though autumn is not really considered to have arrived in North America until the equinox on September 22/23. For the fashionistas among us, Labor Day is often seen as the last day of the year on which it is acceptable to wear white clothing. There is no firm agreement on what led to this particular rule of etiquette, but some practical explanations include the fact that autumn marks the end of the summer months when white is often worn simply as a means of staying cool, and the fact that the wetter, muddier conditions of the fall are less forgiving to white garments. Some historians posit that the fashion rule is more symbolic of the early 20th century’s look of choice for well-to-do Americans who would sometimes abandon the oppressive cities for months-long vacations in warmer locales where they traded their dark city suits for white linen and Panama hats until it was time to return home and get back to work. Whatever the reason, the rule was never considered hard-and-fast, fashion icons have always considered it a rule to be ostentatiously broken, and it has now been all but wholly abandoned in any event. So feel free to wear that Panama hat well into October!