Before the early 1800’s, the United States was largely an agricultural country with an economy based on farms and farming. People on farms and plantations worked from dawn to dusk, 12 to 14 hours a day, 7 days a week. England was already changing from a farming economy and experiencing an Industrial Revolution in the late 1700’s, with textile factories and other industrial projects.
In 1768, a man named Samuel Slater was born in England who would later play a major role in America’s progress in becoming who we are today. At a very early age he was apprenticed to the owner of a Cotton Mill and due to his hard work and intelligence, soon became a superintendent. The Cotton Mill machines were designed by a genius named Arkwright who powered them with water wheels.
When he was about 21 years old, Slater, who had a photographic memory, decided he wanted to make a fortune for himself, so he quietly set sail for America. England had made it against the law for anyone in the textile industry to leave the country or even talk to anyone about the textile machines. Samuel Slater memorized the details of the textile machine and, when he arrived in New York, he set about finding someone to build the factory.
He found a rich Quaker, Moses Brown, and according to my High School history book, the first American Textile Factory was built in Rhode Island in 1790. Slater divided the work with the textile machine into lots so simple to understand that children 4 years old and up could do it… and they did. No one thought anything of it in those days because, had it been a farm to which they were born, they would have been put to work as soon as they could walk with no questions asked.
Just as our economic resources have been depleted today by Iraq and Afghanistan wars, our economic resources in America were depleted by the Civil war. People needed jobs and the Industrial Revolution in New England and in other major cities in America was getting underway which meant they needed workers in the new factories. There were no standards or regulations set down as to what they should pay these laborers and how many hours they should work per day, so the mill owners set their own rules.
They wanted to make the most profit from their investment so they worked them 12 hours a day, seven days a week and paid them as little as they could get away with. They hired entire families and, even though children of 5 or 6 years old were doing almost the same amount of work as the adults, they paid them half of what the adults received. There were limited sanitary facilities for their use while working and breaks were non-existent. People desperately needed work and they had no one to speak up for them, so they accepted the conditions that were forced upon them.
Labor Unions, which had been around since even before 1800, started staging small strikes and work stoppages to protest these inhumane and unfair conditions, forcing the owners to negotiate better pay and hours with the workers. One of the bloodiest of these strikes occurred in Chicago in 1886, called the Haymarket Riots, when over a dozen policemen and strikers were killed.
The first actual Labor Day parade in history took place in New York City on Monday, September 5, 1882. 10,000 workers took off from work with no pay and paraded from City Hall to Union Square. It became so popular that most states with industrial centers made the first Monday in September a “workingmen’s holiday”.
The Federal Government would do nothing with it for over 12 years until they were prompted by the bloody riots and killings in Chicago. It happened at the Pullman Railroad Car Company where troops were sent to put down the strike which all but stopped rail commerce in the United States. But it did bring the problem to a head and Congress even passed a law making Labor Day a legal holiday in it’s own little bailiwick, the District of Columbia, as well as a federally mandated holiday for the entire United States and all it’s territories.
No one is really sure who had the first idea of a holiday to celebrate the American worker. Some say it was Peter McGuire who co-founded the American Federation of Labor and was a witness to a similar celebration earlier in Canada or maybe it was Matthew Maguire who helped organize another union of the time, The Central Labor Union in New York. The celebrations were so successful that they have carried on, without interruption, for more than 100 years. In some cities, gigantic parades are staged and others, elaborate public fireworks displays are held in parks and stadiums. These days it is almost guaranteed that in nearly every back yard in America, there will be a family re-union and a cook out.