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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Labor Day in Wisconsin

To most of us, Labor Day is simply the final weekend of summer. But we have this long weekend only because more than a century ago working men and women insisted on public recognition of their contributions to American life.

Origins of Labor Day.

The direct inspiration for Labor Day occurred in New York City on Tuesday, September 6, 1882, when 10,000 workers left their jobs to parade through Manhattan demanding an eight-hour workday. The organizers called it "Artisans' Day" and encouraged workers in other cities to follow their example. Within a few years, the practice had spread all across the country.

In Wisconsin, Labor Day became an official state holiday in 1893 and a day of great celebration for the Federated Trades Council of Milwaukee. This souvenir program from their 1900 celebration features articles on labor issues, labor stories and songs, and advertisements from sympathetic businesses. Historical pictures of Labor Day parades and celebrations from Milwaukee to Bayfield can be found at Wisconsin Historical Images.

Early Celebration in Wisconsin

This silk ribbon worn during an Artisan's Day parade in Milwaukee in the 1880s evokes the time when Labor Day meant something more than beer and brats. After marching through Milwaukee on Artisans' Day 1888, thousands of iron molders, carpenters, shoe and boot makers, cigar makers, iron and steel makers, printers, and stone-cutters assembled at Schlitz Park with their families for an afternoon of speeches in English and German, as well as athletic contests, and a grand ball.

Federal Holiday

Labor Day became a national holiday in 1894. President Grover Cleveland, after breaking the American Railway Union with considerable violence and loss of life, signed a bill making the first Monday in September a national holiday for American workers. It was a blatant attempt to win back their support, but workers were not so easily fooled. The program from a 1900 Milwaukee celebration includes this advice:

"...year after year we walk up to the polls and vote the old party ticket, and put our necks under the yoke of the capitalist just as the well-trained ox walks under his master's yoke, and then we wonder why we are no better off than the ox. The great majority of the working men realize that they have hands to work with and a stomach to feed, but they appear to have entirely forgotten that they have brains to reason with. Come now and let us reason together. Let's swear off being oxen and nominate and elect men from the ranks of labor, whose interests are our interests… We have been oxen long enough."

Collecting and Sharing Labor Stories

The Wisconsin Historical Society began actively collecting historical materials related to labor and working-class people in the 1890s. As a result, the Society's Library-Archives division and Museum contain a vast array of labor history resources.

The Society has also put the most important eyewitness accounts and historical documents about labor in Wisconsin online at Turning Points in Wisconsin History. Its section on "The Birth of the Labor Movement" contains many early accounts, and its section on "Depression and Unemployment" contains labor documents from the 20th century. Important labor leaders, reformers, and events are individually described in the online Dictionary of Wisconsin History.

Our goal in this work is to help people -- especially young people learning their history for the first time -- discover that our common heritage is much richer and more complex than appears at first glance. History is not just a boring collection of names and dates entombed in a high school textbook. It's a web of truly amazing, interconnected stories about all types of people. Understanding them helps make us who we are today.

:: Posted in on August 30, 2012
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