Labor Day

Labor Day rallies have a long history in Philadelphia.

Back in the mid-1880s, when those unrealistic new labor unions were suggesting that workers should have Saturday afternoons off from the normal 60-hour week, observing the first Monday of September as Labor Day was a new concept.

I checked the newspapers of the day and found mentions of parades and picnics in other cities, but it was 1887 before I found a newspaper report of any Philadelphia activity.

On that Monday, September 5, the local chapter of the Knights of Labor union had a huge picnic in Pastime Park from morning 'til night.

Pastime Park was an amusement park in Philly, with a big toboggan, a forerunner of roller coasters. There was also a quarter-mile running track for foot races. (I don’t know where in the city it was; if you do, please let me know.)

An estimated 8,000 people attended the gathering. Various local unions set up booths, including the Shirtmakers Assembly No. 6481 and the Cigarmakers Local Union No. 53. Brickmakers, Ironworkers and other unions also were there.

“Several bars had been erected on the grounds,” the Inquirer reported next day, “and beer was dispensed in a lavish manner.”

Several union locals staged foot races. The Cigarmakers Local and the Boilermakers Local met in a baseball game, and the cigar men won, 16-1.

A band played all day, and there was dancing in the evening. Also, four men reported having their pockets picked during the day.

Elsewhere that afternoon, the United German Trades, the Central Labor Union and other labor organizations held a “demonstration” at Rising Sun Park, Germantown and Allegheny avenues. About 3,000 attended.

It all seems quaint to us now, but it had been only 80 years earlier that Philadelphia shoemakers had been first to organize and attempt to bargain collectively for hours and wages. They were taken to court and found guilty of “conspiracy.”

The evolution of organized labor was complex, but a major leap began when nine tailors in Philadelphia formed the Knights of Labor. It began as a sort of secret society, but it morphed into the first major labor union after Terence Powderly, the mayor of Scranton, became the leader in 1879.

The Knights organized dozens of occupations, from coal miners to farmers, and pushed for legislation and arbitration that favored the working man. And woman.

That Labor Day in Philly in 1887 was unofficial. A few cities had made the day official, and in 1887, five states were observing the day. By 1894, it was nation-wide.

Historians, who enjoy such disagreements, disagree on who first proposed the idea of a national Labor Day. Some say it was Peter J. McGuire of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and later a founder of the American Federation of Labor.

Others say it was Matthew Maguire, of the International Association of Machinists, while he was secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York. That city’s first observance was in 1882.

Maguire was in charge that day, when union members set out from the city hall, led by the band of the Jewelers Union of Newark. A crowd was waiting along the route, and most of the spectators fell in behind the marchers.

The ultimate number of participants was estimated at from 10,000 to 20,000, a rather big “from.” But, hey, that’s New York.

Whatever. President Grover Cleveland signed the bill in 1904 that made Labor Day a national holiday. Hope you had a good one.

Visit columnist Jim Smart’s web site at

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