Artisans Day Ribbon
Artisans Day Ribbon possibly worn during parade in Milwaukee, September 3, 1888.
(Museum object #H12653)
Picture this: 1,700 workmen, led through downtown Milwaukee by the city's most popular German orchestra and over 100 iron molders twirling "oddly-shaped Japanese umbrellas of various gay hues." Sadly, no photographs of this colorful event seem to have survived, but this was the scene on September 3, 1888, at the head of Milwaukee's third annual Artisans' Day parade. It is likely that this ribbon was worn by one of the marchers in that parade.
The ribbon is silk, about 8 inches long, and shows a seated workman in shirtsleeves, surrounded by tools and the products of industry. A patriotic eagle appears at the top and the names of various trades appear on scrolls surrounding the image. The worker is shown in a moment of repose, contemplating an unidentified object – perhaps a woodworker's plane – in his lap.
The 1888 parade, which was organized by the recently founded Milwaukee Federated Trades Council (FTC), consisted of iron molders, carpenters, shoe and boot makers, cigarmakers, iron and steel makers, printers and stonecutters. After parading through town, the workers and their families retired to Schlitz Park for an afternoon of games, speeches in both English and German, and athletic contests, followed by a grand ball. According to the Milwaukee Daily Journal, "The park was thronged with the families and friends of the artisans and the afternoon [was] given up to genuine enjoyment and pleasure." The paper concluded, "Everything passed off quietly and harmoniously, and it was regarded as the most enjoyable and successful celebration of artisans day ever held in Milwaukee."
Artisans' Day was the predecessor of our current national holiday, Labor Day. Though workers had long rallied support through parades and street demonstrations, the direct inspiration for Labor Day occurred in New York City on Tuesday September 6, 1882 when 10,000 workmen paraded through Manhattan demanding an eight-hour workday, then adjourned for speeches and a picnic. The organizers encouraged workers in other cities to take similar holidays, and within a few years the practice had spread across the country. Oregon became the first state to recognize Artisans' Day as a state holiday in 1887.
Despite the participants' "genuine enjoyment" of Milwaukee's 1888 celebration, a distinct tension underlay the event. Milwaukee had celebrated its first Artisans' Day on September 6, 1886, a mere four months after the "Bay View Massacre," in which Wisconsin state militia fired upon a peaceful crowd of workers striking for an eight-hour day, killing at least seven people.
Most Wisconsinites probably considered the Milwaukee disturbances, which came hard on the heels of the Haymarket bombing in Chicago, an expression of anarchy and lawlessness. In the aftermath, radical labor leaders were jailed and many Polish workers blacklisted. This reaction split the Milwaukee labor movement, and the instigators of the 1886 demonstrations, the Knights of Labor, lost influence to more moderate, craft-oriented American Federation of Labor unions. Artisans' Day assumed a great symbolic importance in the wake of the Bay View assault, but in celebrating it, Milwaukee workers wished to avoid provoking additional repression.
A similar uncertainty prevailed in 1888. In August, the cigar makers and carpenters threatened to boycott the parade if the Knights of Labor participated. The FTC persuaded them to march by insisting on a non-partisan commemoration. The brewers and the teamsters, who were scheduled for a tug-of-war at Schlitz Park, were both no-shows. (In a substitute contest, the longshoremen defeated the iron molders in two straight tugs.) According to the Milwaukee Sentinel, the speeches at the picnic revealed the ongoing ideological strain within the movement. "There was a flavor of haranguing to one or two of the speeches," it reported, "which the last two speakers very gracefully turned, showing themselves possessed of an appreciation of the fact that the day was for artisans and not organizers." The Journal reported that the labor candidate for Governor was not allowed to speak, on the grounds that "the gathering should in no manner whatever smack of political significance."
Milwaukee workers agitated to make Artisans' Day an official holiday. The new Mayor of Milwaukee George W. Peck proclaimed it a city holiday in 1890, and continued to support the idea when he became Governor. He urged the legislature in 1892: "A large number of citizens who celebrate Artisans' Day as an annual festival are desirous of having it made a legal holiday. I feel much in sympathy with this, to me, reasonable request of the people whose holidays are few, and therefore commend this subject to your careful consideration." The Wisconsin legislature passed a bill making Artisans' Day a state holiday on April 17, 1893, and Peck approved it two days later, making Wisconsin the 24th state to create a legal Labor Day holiday.
Labor Day finally became a national holiday in 1894, but not without additional controversy. In July 1894, Democratic President Grover Cleveland, no particular friend of organized labor, ordered federal soldiers to break a nationwide rail boycott organized by the American Railway Union (ARU) in support of workers at the Chicago Pullman Palace Car Co. After considerable violence and loss of life, federal intervention successfully ended the strike and disbanded the ARU. Hoping to win back some lost support from working class voters, the Democrat Cleveland signed the bill making the first Monday in September a national holiday for American workers.
[Sources: Nesbit, Robert C. "The Bay View Tragedy" in Darryl Holter, Workers and Unions in Wisconsin: A Labor History Anthology (Madison, WI; State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1999), pp. 34-46; Powderly, T.V. "Labor Day: Its History and Significance" in T. V. Powderly and A. W. Wright, eds., Labor Day Annual, 1893. (Philadelphia; The Labor Annual Publishing Company, 1893), pp. 7-16, text available online at
Posted on August 28, 2008
This article appears in the following categories:
- Business, Technology, & Labor