While there’s some debate over who first proposed the idea of Labor Day 125 years ago — as Gallagher Bassett News has discussed on previous adventures into American holiday history — there are no questions regarding what the holiday itself has always been: a party. In fact, according to the Department of Labor’s history of the holiday, the original laws declaring a national holiday designated it as a day for a family-friendly festival to be thrown after a parade used “to exhibit to the public ‘the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations’ of the community.”
The concept of the holiday as one of leisurely family time is based in no small part on the first significant celebration of Labor Day in America, on September 5, 1882 in New York City: A “monster labor festival,” which may never have happened if not for a band from New Jersey.
No, not the E. Street Band.
Instead, it was the fine folks of the Jewelers Union, who saved the inaugural celebration through the magical power of sheet music. Before the 200 union members from the Newark Two arrived via ferry to the festivities, those workers already gathered by parade Grand Marshall William McCabe found themselves all dressed up — and accompanied by “musical instruments, badges and all the other paraphernalia of a procession” — with nothing to play. Thankfully, once the late-arriving jewelers joined in on the march, so did the spectators, leading over 10,000 laborers towards the endpoint of the parade, Reservoir Park.
Once they arrived at their final destination around midday, those who could not afford to miss a day’s wages — as it was a Tuesday, and therefore a normal workday — went back to work, while the rest of the spectators (and even some working people who had been unable to participate during the day) made their way to Elm Park where “lager beer keys mounted in every conceivable place” and almost 25,000 union members, along with their families, partied until the evening came.
So, when you think back to this year’s Labor Day celebration or plan for next year’s, try to remember those who led the way, whether in the workplace or on the parade route.