Primary Source: Celebrating Labor

It’s the 126th anniversary of Labor Day. Why do we celebrate working by not working?

Noel C. Cilker
13 min readSep 7, 2020

Monday, September 7, 2020 marks the 126th anniversary of the federal holiday Labor Day, though some states, Oregon being the first, had been celebrating it already.

From the late 1700s to mid 1800s, an industrial revolution, starting in Britain, swept over Europe and the United States. “Revolution” is not an overstatement; the transition from hand production methods to mass production by machines transformed the economy, work, population movements, economic classes, living standards, health, and the government’s role in all of it.

In the early 1800s the United States, like most of the world, ran on primarily an agricultural, pastoral, and natural resource based economy. Inspired by Britain’s industrial development, Americans then contributed their own technological inventions to speed up work, most notably the modern cotton gin and the milling machine.

A model of an 1800s cotton gin.

The increase in quantity and quality of production disrupted the economy and how people worked. More slaves were imported into the South to produce even more cotton. Northerners left their farms and moved into cities when the mass production of steel took off in the 1860s.

But as the economy heated up, activists and workers started calling for workplace protections and the right to unionize. The labor movement swelled as it fought to check big business and win rights for workers’ safety, health and prosperity.

What issues led to the federal holiday of Labor Day in 1894, and what issues persisted afterward?

The first American Labor Day parade was held in New York City on September 5, 1882. (Frank Leslie’s Weekly Illustrated Newspaper)

Adam Smith extols the division of labor. (1776)

A hallmark of the Industrial Revolution was the idea of creating uniform machine parts that could be interchanged easily with minimal loss of production time. The famed economist Adam Smith saw that the same concept of interchangeability could be applied to humans to produce goods. This idea later evolved into the assembly line, made famous by Henry Ford in his automobile plants. In his seminal work The Wealth of Nations, Smith describes the clear benefits of dividing the production of goods into many small tasks, and predicts how that system will lead to “universal opulence” for all classes.

But in the way in which this business is now carried on, not only the whole work is a peculiar trade, but it is divided into a number of branches, of which the greater part are likewise peculiar trades. One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving, the head; to make the head requires two or three distinct operations; to put it on is a peculiar business, to whiten the pins is another; it is even a trade by itself to put them into the paper; and the important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operations, which, in some manufactories, are all performed by distinct hands, though in others the same man will sometimes perform two or three of them. . . .

It is the great multiplication of the productions of all the different arts, in consequence of the division of labour, which occasions, in a well-governed society, that universal opulence which extends itself to the lowest ranks of the people.

Workers in a factory are divided up to do simple, repetitive tasks.

An essayist laments the plight of “wage slaves.” (1840)

As the Industrial Revolution gripped the United States, many towns and villages swelled with workers eager to find the low-skill work that Adam Smith celebrated. Many, indeed, earned more than they had before as farmers, but soon found themselves trapped in poor working conditions. In this article published in the Boston Quarterly Review, well-known essayist Orestes Brownson criticized what he deemed “wage slavery.”

All over the world this fact stares us in the face, the working-man is poor and depressed, while a large portion of the non-workingmen, in the sense we now use the term, are wealthy. It may be laid down as a general rule, with but few exceptions, that men are rewarded in an inverse ratio to the amount of actual service they perform. . . .

But the great mass wear out their health, spirits, and morals, without becoming one whit better off than when they commenced labor. The bills of mortality in these factory villages are not striking, we admit, for the poor girls when they can toil no longer go home to die. The average life, working life we mean, of the girls that come to Lowell, for instance, from Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, we have been assured, is only about three years. What becomes of them then? Few of them ever marry; fewer still ever return to their native places with reputations unimpaired. “She has worked in a Factory,” is almost enough to damn to infamy the most worthy and virtuous girl. We know no sadder sight on earth than one of our factory villages presents, when the bell at break of day, or at the hour of breakfast, or dinner, calls out its hundreds or thousands of operatives. We stand and look at these hard working men and women hurrying in all directions, and ask ourselves, where go the proceeds of their labors?

Women labor in a textile factory in this engraving from 1835. (Getty Images)

Starving Pullman strikers appeal to their governor, and the governor responds. (1894)

By the time the Industrial Revolution was in full force, large companies such as the Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago had created company towns for their workers to live and shop in, with all the proceeds going to the company. In 1894, George Pullman laid off workers and reduced wages but did not lower utility rates or rents on the company town houses. Workers in the town went on strike, and eventually President Grover Cleveland sent the Army in to break a boycott of the railroads. Many strikers were not hired back at Pullman, so they appealed to Illinois Governor John Altgeld.

August 17, 1894.

To His Excellency, the Governor of the State of Illinois:

We, the people of Pullman, who, by the greed and oppression of George M. Pullman, have been brought to a condition where starvation stares us in the face, do hereby appeal to you for aid in this our hour of need. We have been refused employment and have no means of leaving this vicinity, and our families are starving. Our places have been filled with workmen from all over the United States, brought here by the Pullman Company, and the surplus were turned away to walk the streets and starve also. There are over 1600 families here in destitution and want, and their condition is pitiful. We have exhausted all the means at our command to feed them, and we now make this appeal to you as a last resource. Trusting that God will influence you in our behalf and that you will give this your prompt attention, we remain,

Yours in distress,


The Illinois National Guard guard the Arcade Building against strikers in Pullman neighborhood of Chicago, 1894. (Chicago History Museum)

Governor Altgeld received the letter and immediately wrote to Pullman, threatening to intervene if the railroad boss refused to relieve the situation. Pullman responded that it was the workers who were at fault, that they wouldn’t be starving if they hadn’t struck. After the strike, the Illinois State Supreme Court eventually forced Pullman to sell off its residential holdings.

August 19, 1894.

To George M. Pullman, President Pullman Palace Car Co., Chicago:

Sir: — I have received numerous reports to the effect that there is great distress at Pullman. To-day I received a formal appeal as Governor from a committee of the Pullman people for aid. They state that sixteen hundred families including women and children, are starving; that they cannot get work and have not the means to go elsewhere; that your company has brought men from all over the United States to fill their places.

Now these people live in your town and were your employees. Some of them worked for your company for many years. They must be people of industry and character or you would not have kept them. Many of them have practically given their lives to you. It is claimed they struck because after years of toil their loaves were so reduced that their children went hungry. Assuming that they were wrong and foolish, they had yet served you long and well and you must feel some interest in them. They do not stand on the same footing with you, so that much must be overlooked.

The State of Illinois has not the least desire to meddle in the affairs of your company, but it cannot allow a whole community within its borders to perish of hunger. The local overseer of the poor has been appealed to, but there is a limit to what he can do. I cannot help them very much at present. So unless relief comes from some other source I shall either have to call an extra session of the Legislature to make special appropriations, or else issue an appeal to the humane people of the State to give bread to your recent employees. It seems to me that you would prefer to relieve the situation yourself, especially as it has just cost the State upwards of fifty thousand dollars to protect your property, and both the State and the public have suffered enormous loss and expense on account of disturbances that grew out of trouble between your company and its workmen.

I am going to Chicago to-night to make a personal investigation before taking any official action. I will be at my office in the Unity block at 10 a.m. to-morrow, and shall be glad to hear from you if you care to make any reply.

JOHN P. ALTGELD, Governor.

The Chicago Labor Newspaper ran this political cartoon on July 7, 1894, in the midst of the strike. (Chicago Labor Newspaper)

President Cleveland proclaims the federal holiday of Labor Day. (1894)

With the strikers turning to rioting, President Cleveland sent federal troops into Chicago. On July 7, state and federal troops fired into a mob and killed as many as thirty people. While Labor Day legislation was already moving through Congress, many historians (but not all) believe that Cleveland pushed it across the goal to appease labor leaders.

An Act Making Labor Day a legal holiday.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the first Monday of September in each year, being the day celebrated and known as Labor’s Holiday, is hereby made a legal public holiday, to all intents and purposes, in the same manner as Christmas, the first day of January, the twenty-second day of February, the thirtieth day of May, and the fourth day of July are now made by law public holidays.

Approved, June 28, 1894.

President Grover Cleveland. (National Archives)

A muckraker exposes child labor in the coal mines. (1906)

Just because the country made Labor Day a holiday didn’t mean that laborers and their leaders were placated. Quite the opposite; in the early 1900s, unions and progressive reformers had many workplace-related targets at which to aim. Child labor was one of them, as publicized by Socialist author John Spargo who exposed harsh working conditions for children in the coal mines. Federal laws regulating the use of children for labor weren’t made permanent until 1938.

I once stood in a breaker for half an hour and tried to do the work a twelve-year-old boy was doing day after day, for ten hours at a stretch, for sixty cents a day. The gloom of the breaker appalled me. Outside the sun shone brightly, the air was pellucid [clear], and the birds sang in chorus with the trees and the rivers. Within the breaker there was blackness, clouds of deadly dust enfolded everything, the harsh, grinding roar of the machinery and the ceaseless rushing of coal through the chutes filled the ears. I tried to pick out the pieces of slate from the hurrying stream of coal, often missing them; my hands were bruised and cut in a few minutes; I was covered from head to foot with coal dust, and for many hours afterwards I was expectorating some of the small particles of anthracite I had swallowed.

Breaker boys break coal, which creates dust that infects their lungs, 1911. (Library of Congress)
A child miner in West Virginia, 1908. (Library of Congress)

The Eight-Hour Association demands shorter work days. (1886)

Workers had long fought for shorter workdays, but the fight for the eight-hour day became a general demand by the 1830s. As industrialization increased, so did the call for eight hours until it became a rallying cry by the 1870s. Eight-Hour Leagues across the country held rallies, parades, and publicized their platforms, such as the following one in 1886. Gradually workers in various trades won the eight-hour day through negotiations and strikes, but a blanket federal law mandating it didn’t pass until 1937 with the Fair Labor Standards Act.

The advantage of eight hours to the laboring classes will be (1st) employment; (2d) steady employment; (3d) better wages; (4th) relief from anxiety that comes from idleness and poverty; (5th) an opportunity to lay aside the means for the purchase of a home; (6th) opportunity to see and get acquainted with the family by day-light; (7th) more time for intellectual improvement; (8th) a chance for outdoor recreation on the secular day, without being compelled to take Sunday for that purpose; (9th) the ability to obtain respectable dress and make a good appearance, whereby encouragement is given to attend church and social gatherings, resulting in intellectual, moral and spiritual improvement.

An International Workers of the World poster promotes the eight-hour work day, 1912. (Wikimedia)

A librarian describes the workplace in World War II. (1997)

During World War II, as men journeyed overseas to fight the Germans, Italians and Japanese, women rushed in to fill the workforce. Real-life Rosie the Riveters joined the assembly lines at aircraft, tank, ship, and munitions factories, with many earning a paycheck for the first time. But after the war, women were let go to make room for the returning men. Josephine Carson, working in a library with other young women, describes how they felt when the war ended.

In college we were taught that we should be able to handle both a career and a family. We knew it would be difficult, but we thought we had the brains to work it out, the brains and the energy and the expertise. So I think this was rather a blow after the war ended. I think that women after the war did not want to go home. They wanted a career. They worked during the war outside their homes and then in many cases they were fired and they had to go back to the home because the boys were coming back. They wanted the jobs for the men. I think we were trying to work for economic fairness and social acceptance of women in the work force. And, of course, the women said, “We were okay during the war effort. We’re not now?”

Josephine Carson. (

The California Assembly Speaker apologizes to a colleague. (2020)

More women are part of the workforce now than ever before, and yet problems persist: harassment, non-equal wages, and inconsistent requirements for parental leave. California Assemblymember Buffy Wicks felt the burden of the latter last week in Sacramento when a bill came up for a vote. Wicks had given birth in late July but was told by Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon that she could not vote by proxy; when the vote came up, Wicks took her nursing daughter into the Capitol with her. Family leave advocates were incensed and Rendon eventually apologized.

I want to make a full apology to Assemblymember Wicks. My intention was never to be inconsiderate toward her, her role as a legislator, or her role as a mother. Inclusivity and electing more women into politics are core elements of our Democratic values. Nevertheless, I failed to make sure our process took into account the unique needs of our Members. The Assembly needs to do better. I commit to doing better.

Assemblymember Buffy Wicks votes while holding her one-month old daughter, 2020.

A labor activist defines what workers want. (1890)

Samuel Gompers was a labor union leader in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He founded the American Federation of Labor and served as its president many times. Four years before Labor Day was declared a federal holiday, Gompers spoke to a working crowd in Louisville.

We have been accused of being selfish, and it has been said that we will want more; that last year we got an advance of ten cents and now we want more. We do want more. You will find that a man generally wants more. Go and ask a tramp what he wants, and if he doesn’t want a drink he will want a good, square meal. You ask a workingman, who is getting two dollars a day, and he will say that he wants ten cents more. Ask a man who gets five dollars a day and he will want fifty cents more. The man who receives five thousand dollars a year wants six thousand a year, and the man who owns eight or nine hundred thousand dollars will want a hundred thousand dollars to make it a million, while the man who has his millions will want everything he can lay his hands on and then raise his voice against the poor devil who wants ten cents more a day.

We live in the latter part of the Nineteenth century. In the age of electricity and steam that has produced wealth a hundred fold, we insist that it has been brought about by the intelligence and the energy of the workingmen, and while we find that it is now easier to produce it is harder to live. We do want more, and when it becomes more, we shall still want more. [Applause] And we shall never cease to demand more until we have received the results of our labor.

Samuel Gompers, 1900. (Library of Congress)
Labor unions march in New York City’s annual Labor Day Parade, 2016. (Local 79)

I am currently working on Gold in the Fire, a book about Ah Toy, the first Chinese brothel madam in gold rush San Francisco.

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Noel C. Cilker

I’m a writer, interested in history’s stories and the links between then and now.