American Holidays: Labor Day

Contributor: Meghan Vestal. Lesson ID: 11633

What would you call a holiday that gives workers a day off? No Work Day? No Labor Day? Here is a holiday that had a rough start, but is now enjoyed by millions. Join the fight with your own posters!


Social Studies

Social Studies
learning style
personality style
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!


How do American working conditions today compare to working conditions during the Industrial Revolution? Read on and be glad you live today!

Image on the right by Lewis Hine, via Wikimedia Commons, is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the National Archives Identifier (NAID) 523108 and is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code.

Every September, families mark the end of summer by gathering together for one last cookout or dip in the pool.

What really is Labor Day, and why was it created?

Labor refers to workers, and Labor Day is a holiday that was created to honor American workers and give them a day off from work. To some, it may only be appreciated as a free day off from work, but it took years of hardship and poor working conditions to earn this national holiday.

If you have not yet labored over the seven previous Related Lessons in this American Holidays series, start in the right-hand sidebar.

What was the American Industrial Revolution? Tell your teacher or parent any facts you already know about the Industrial Revolution in the United States. Keep in mind that an Industrial Revolution also occurred in other countries, but you are focusing specifically on the American Industrial Revolution.

The Industrial Revolution began in the late 1700s — shortly after the conclusion of the Revolutionary War — and ended in the late 1800s. It was a time period defined by a shift from manual labor to big cities with industrialized, mechanical labor. Many people began moving from rural farming areas to big cities, particularly in the northeastern states.

While this shift in the way work was accomplished transformed American geography and economics, it also created many problems.

The biggest problems created by the Industrial Revolution were harsh, unsafe working conditions. Many Americans worked 10 to 12 hour days, seven days per week, and were paid little money for their long hours. In addition, factory conditions were often unsanitary, and the heavy machinery was unsafe. Many factory workers were killed by diseases caught at the factories or by the machines used in the factories. The working conditions were not only unsafe for adults, they were also unsafe for children. Children as young as five years old would work in factories, many without shoes, and were paid significantly less than adults working in the same positions.

Children working in a mill in Macon, Georgia, 1909

Image by Lewis Hine, via Wikimedia Commons, is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID nclc.01581 and is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1924.

American ingenuity was growing, while concern for workers was diminishing, and this created tension among workers, employers, and the government. In the midst of this tension, the first labor unions were formed. Labor unions are organizations that protect workers' rights. Typically, labor unions work with employers and the government on behalf of the workers, fighting for fair wages, better benefits, and safer working conditions.

Despite the work being done by the labor unions, working conditions did not improve straight-away, and workers began taking matters into their own hands by hosting regular strikes and protests. These protests would often become violent. Police would frequently be called in, and often workers were killed during the physical conflicts that would arise.

On September 5, 1882, the first Labor Day was held when more than 10,000 workers took unpaid leave from work in New York City. The workers marched from City Hall to Union Square, demanding better pay and working conditions. The event is now referred to as the first Labor Day parade. The notion of taking unpaid leave the first Monday of each September to protest workers' rights, caught on in other cities across the country and became a tradition in industrialized areas.

For many years, Congress refused to recognize the date as a national holiday, until 1894. On May 11, 1894, employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago went on strike after several labor union representatives were fired. The strike lasted for several weeks, and, eventually, police had to be sent into Chicago to take control of the riots that had started. In the process, several workers were killed, creating even more anger and hostility.

Desperate to mend wounds with American workers, Congress passed an act making Labor Day a national holiday. The holiday would be celebrated each year on the first Monday in September. While it still took several years to improve American working conditions and regulate working laws, recognizing Labor Day as a holiday was the first step in this process.

Labor Day continues to be celebrated on the first Monday in September. Today, the holiday is recognized more as the official end to summer and less as a celebration of the American worker. Most people are given time off from work and school. In the early 1900s, it was common for prominent men and women to give speeches, but this tradition has died. On the other hand, parades remain a common Labor Day tradition to commemorate the marches American workers led to demand improved working rights. It is also common for family and friends to gather for a cookout, time at the swimming pool, or a visit to a local park. Many businesses host end-of-summer sales, and football typically begins on or around Labor Day.

What does your family usually do to celebrate Labor Day? Tell your teacher or parent.

Now, move on to the Got It? section to continue learning about Labor Day.

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