How Labor Day originated and other traditions

Posted August 27, 2013 at 11:00 pm


Northeast News
August 28, 2013

For a number of full-time American workers, Monday is typically a day dreaded to work on.

Labor Day, however, is the first Monday in September most Americans have off from work. Here is the origin on how it all started.

Harsh Times at Work

The conception of this anticipated holiday started nearly 119 years ago during the time when the Industrial Revolution was booming in America and in England. This was also the time when most workers did not have such luxuries as sick days, good pay or days off to take. Most workers, many of whom were young children, would work in factories on machines.

The great majority of these workers were paid little to nothing and worked extremely long hours. Injuries and even deaths occurred while trying to work and fix the machines. Soon after, Unions in America emerged to protest against these unsafe work situations. One of the major companies of the Industrial Revolution in America was the Pullman company, a railroad sleeping car company.

President George Pullman founded the company in 1880 in his own town called Pullman, Ill. He built the town to make it easier for his workers to be closer to work, so they also lived there in the town. In this town the workers lived in small row houses while the managers lived in modest Victorian-style homes, and Pullman made a luxurious hotel for himself and visiting customers to stay overnight. Workers had to pay rent to stay there.

Business was booming until the economic depression of 1893. Pullman was forced to lay off many employees, but the high costs for rent stayed the same there with wages being cut dramatically. Workers held a strike after they demanded lower rents and higher pay; Pullman did not let up. Then the American Railway Union, led by Eugene Debs, came to the aid of the workers on strike and from there the nation was in debate about the issue.

United States President Grover Cleveland sent nearly 12,000 federal troops to break up the strike, which then resulted in two men being killed when the U.S. deputy marshals fired on the protesters outside of Chicago. Debs was arrested and the strike was over.

Election Time

It was during this time that workers across the nation, particularly in unions such as the American Federation of Labor, pushed for a national holiday where workers could have the day off. It was also during this time, 1894, that President Cleveland wanted a second term as president. So he was faced with the decision to appease workers across the nation and get reelected at the same time.

Before the 1894 election, Cleveland put the Labor Day initiative as his No.1 priority and U.S. Congress unanimously made Labor Day a national holiday.

Cleveland, however, was not reelected.

No white after Labor Day

Much like the origins of the actual holiday, only few know the history behind the rule of “no white after Labor Day.”

Historians suggest that more people who were “well-off” financially wore white after the holiday; when the middle class expanded by the 1950s, families were able to afford white colored clothes to have the “look of leisure.”

In a story by TIME magazine, Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, said, “It was insiders trying to keep other people out and outsiders trying to climb in by proving they know the rules.”

The insiders she mentions were the people who had the grandiose amounts of money and the outsiders being those who wanted that look of luxury. Trends of those “financially well-off” changed since they did not want people essentially mocking them.

Thus the rule was born that people cannot wear white after Labor Day. However, the question still remains: If you cannot wear white after Labor Day, then when is the cutoff? If there is no cutoff, then no one can wear white.