Sunday, September 4, 2011

Labor Day - What Type of Labor Did Your Ancestors Do?

Tomorrow is Labor Day. How do you plan to spend your day? Will you have some time to labor in your genealogy work? What made me think of this topic, other than it is a major holiday in the U.S., is I just finished reading "The Colonial Craftsman", by Carl Bridenbaugh. It was recommended on one of the email lists for understanding early New England occupations before the Revolutionary War.

The book is based on six lectures given by the author and is 181 pages of easy to read text with 22 pages of endnotes. Originally printed in 1950, it was reprinted in 1990. It includes nineteen illustrations that are old engravings that were originally included in a French Encyclopedia that includes a twelve volume Receuil des planches, published in Paris in 1762-1777. After reading about how certain trades were established in the new world, it is interesting to relate this to an ancestral family.

In my family history there are many occupations listed. Many were farmers and then added a craft or trade that they relied upon. There were whalers, shoe and boot makers, butchers, warehouseman, janitors, carpenters, engineers, painters, lawyers and many others. Until the last two generations the women stayed at home and often worked on the farm. My grandmothers were the first generation to work outside of their homes. There is a need to understand the types of employment of each of our ancestors. Their daily, often manual labor, was the basis of their lives. So, how does that apply to the holiday we celebrate tomorrow?

I went in search of some information about Labor Day as we celebrate it today. It is interesting the difference in the information posted on Wikepedia and the United States Department of Labor websites. The government website is definitely more politically correct. It is the glossed over version of the events leading up to the legislation designating Labor Day as a legal federal holiday.

Labor Day was first celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882 in New York City by the Central Labor Union. In 1884 they encouraged the nation to celebrate the "workingmen's holiday" establishing the first Monday in September as the date. Oregon was the first state to make it a holiday on February 21, 1887. By 1894 thirty states officially celebrated Labor Day.

Following the Pullman strike that began on May 11, 1894 there was pressure put on Congress to pass national legislation to establish a formal observance of the contribution made by Union workers in this country. Today we celebrate the economic and social contributions of all workers. Every state has now officially recognized this observance.

The country was encouraged to have street parades, festivals, and speeches made by dignitaries. It is now regarded as a day of rest and includes parties, picnics, barbecues, fireworks displays, water sports, and public art events. It seems to be the official end of summer, marking the beginning of the school year in many localities. Families make plans to get away or in today's economy a staycation. 

I was not aware that the Sunday before Labor Day was by resolution set aside by the American Federation of Labor in 1909 to be dedicated to the spiritual and educational aspects of the labor movement. The final statement on the Department of Labor website encompasses how we might consider the holiday today.

"The vital force of labor added materially to the highest standard of living and the greatest production the world has ever known and has brought us closer to the realization of our traditional ideals of economic and political democracy. It is appropriate, therefore, that the nation pay tribute on Labor Day to the creator of so much of the nation's strength, freedom, and leadership — the American worker."

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