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history of Labor Day

What’s the history of Labor Day?

  |   Hands on Activities, Holidays, Teaching - all grades, Teaching History   |   No comment

When we think of Labor Day, we often daydream about sizzling meat on the grill. Or the warm sun of the pool or beach. Of enjoying time with friends and family as most people have that day off work.  But there’s so much we’re missing if we don’t know (and teach our kids) about the history of Labor Day.

History of Labor Day

The little girl pictured above worked in a mill. She told the photographer she was twelve, although her coworkers all said she was ten. 

More than 100 years ago the labor force was completely different than it is today. Men, women, and even children of five and six labored ten to twelve hours a day for little pay, seven days a week. There were no weekends. No sick leave days, or vacation days. Let alone no over-time pay. Working conditions were often dangerous and unsanitary.

In 1872, a New York City carpenter by the name of Peter McGuire rallied over 100,000 workers to go on strike and march through the streets of the city, protesting these conditions. Many people have credited McGuire for the idea of Labor Day. McGuire fought for a decade to earn rights for workers.

Workers began organizing into labor unions to fight for higher pay, shorter days, and rights for children. They fought to set an age limit on the children who worked to prevent them from injuries. Finally, in 1882, McGuire had the idea to designate one day as a special holiday for workers.

On Tuesday, September 5, 1882, ten thousand workers once again joined together in the streets of New York City. However, this time it was for the first Labor Day parade. The Central Labor Union urged similar organizations in other cities to follow the example of New York by also celebrating a “workingman’s holiday.”

Labor Days in the late 1800s typically consisted of street parades followed by festivals for workers and their families. Elected officials used the opportunity to speak, and picnics and celebrations abounded. Then, in 1894 Congress passed a federal law declaring the first Monday every September as Labor Day.

[Tweet “Labor Day is the day we are thankful for our country’s productivity and strength, and pay tribute to past and current American workers who are largely responsible.”]


Labor Day Ideas for Children

Before you try any of the ideas below, make sure to talk to your kids about the history of Labor Day, and the conditions that many adults and children lived and worked in just to survive.

Ask them to picture themselves working like that, and compare and contrast their lives with the lives of people who lived before laws were made to protect workers and children.


  • Have children create an “Occupation Collage.” Provide magazines and newspapers for children to look through and find workers. Cut out pictures of various workers in our country. Glue and display the pictures onto colorful, patriotic paper.
  •  Thank You Cards. Show your children how to write/stamp the words “Thank You.” Allow them to stamp the words onto paper. The children can decorate cards then deliver them to community helpers (Library, Fire station, Police Station,  Post Office, etc.).



  • Have children choose an occupation. They can draw a picture of the specific worker then together brainstorm a list of the responsibilities or things a person must do for the job.
  • Thank you cards are also perfect for elementary students! Also consider the folks that pick up the trash and deliver the mail (but nothing inside the mailbox, please!) Consider adding some freshly baked cookies to your thank you!
  •  Interview. Children can select a few jobs that interest them or that they want to know more about. Schedule interviews with people in the community and allow the children to conduct the interview after first working together on listing appropriate questions to ask.


 Middle School

  • Build a Resume.  Middle school students can research what skills and education are necessary to obtain jobs they might be interested in. Have them create a “future” resume of what they would need to accomplish in order to be chosen for a job in that specific field.


High School

  • Volunteer or plan to shadow. Have your high school students choose a job that they would like to pursue. Have them arrange a day where they can volunteer with or shadow someone in that profession to experience the responsibilities and commitments that are necessary for success.  (Here are other ideas for high schoolers preparing for college.)

So… were you able to work in any of these (or other) activities about Labor Day into your homeschool?

history of labor day- dana



P.S. If you have a high schooler, you might talk about Labor Day in conjunction with your student reading The Jungle.  It’s an eye-opening and emotionally heavy book, but a must-read during your student’s high school career.

P.P.S. If you are just starting out with a high schooler this year and a little overwhelmed or just want to be a little more organized about it… this will help.


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No Comments
  • Dana | Oct 1, 2014 at 4:36 pm

    I agree, Aliece! Labor Day is one of those holidays that I never quite understood as a child. Learning more about it helped me appreciate what people of the past, especially children, had to endure before labor laws came into play. I am glad you liked the activity suggestions and enjoyed the post!

  • Aliece Christopher | Sep 13, 2014 at 8:38 pm

    A very informative post and timely reminder! Understanding the origin of a holiday makes it so much more significant for everyone in the family to celebrate. The activity suggestions are creative ways are creative and enjoyable ways to engage kids further. Several of them would make excellent yearly traditions…Labor day doesn’t have many of those 🙂

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