There's a deep significance behind this day off from work.

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I always think of Labor Day as the unofficial end of summer activities—but aside from the fact that it typically includes a day off of work and a three-day weekend, the actual purpose of the holiday has always been a bit vague in my mind. As Labor Day weekend quickly approaches, I wanted to dive into the history of the holiday and find out how it got started, and what it stands for today. 

Most people know that Labor Day is a day set aside to show appreciation for the American labor force, but it’s roots are actually a lot deeper than that. It's a holiday that recognizes the American workforce and honors the contributions of all laborers who have been instrumental to the success of our country. Essentially, Labor Day honors the people who made our country what it is today. 

Close up of a glove with a wrench with an American flag in the background
Credit: Tetra Images/Getty Images

When Is Labor Day?

Labor Day is a United States federal holiday that is celebrated on the first Monday in September. This year, Labor Day is Monday, September 6, 2021.

What Is Labor Day?

To understand the history of the holiday, we need a quick refresher on American history. At the end of the 1800s, the Industrial Revolution had just come to the United States. Changes in technology meant that a whole new set of products could be made with machines. Things like steam engines, cameras, typewriters, and electric generators were all produced in factories for the first time. And with the invention of the modern factory, the number of jobs skyrocketed, but wages decreased significantly.

During that time, the average American worked for 12 hours a day, 7 days a week in order to earn a basic living. During the Industrial Revolution, every member of the family—including women and children as young as 5 years old—had to work to provide a home and food to eat. In addition to working long hours, the factories were new and not very safe (this was before building codes and safety regulations were implemented), so many workers sustained illnesses and injuries as a result of the working conditions. 

In order to keep workers safe, labor unions came together for the first time and people began to protest the working conditions. On September 5, 1882, more than 10,000 factory workers went on strike and marched through the streets of New York City in what would become known as the first Labor Day parade in our country’s history.

So, how did these strikes turn into the modern three-day weekend we associate with Labor Day? After the strikes began, individual states began celebrating the “workingmen’s holiday” by giving laborers the day off on the first Monday in September. Over the next decade, the holiday grew in popularity as working conditions slowly improved. On June 28, 1894, President Grover Cleveland declared Labor Day an official holiday honoring the workforce that helped facilitate so many new technological advances in our country. 

Without that labor force, we wouldn’t have modern-day cameras, cars, trains, or electronics. So while Labor Day is certainly a way to celebrate the modern worker, it’s also a day to look back and appreciate those who have come before us. As you’re planning this year’s three-day weekend, take a moment to reflect on the sacrifices of those who have contributed to our country’s modern-day conveniences. 

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