What’s the history of Labor Day?

history of Labor Day

When we think about Labor Day, we often daydream about sizzling meat on the grill or the fun of a pool party. And 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 said she was ten. 

More than 100 years ago, the labor force was utterly 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 any overtime pay. Working conditions were often dangerous and unsanitary.

So (or who) made a change for the better?

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

Garment workers on strike in NYC


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 memorable holiday for workers.

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

Labor Days in the late 1800s typically consisted of street parades and 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 of every September as Labor Day.

We are thankful for our country’s productivity and strength on Labor Day and pay tribute to past and current American workers who are primarily responsible.

Happy Labor Day graphic about teaching your kids the history of Labor Day by enjoying Labor Day activities for kids.


Labor Day Activity 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 to survive.

Ask them to picture themselves working like that and compare and contrast their lives with those 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 and 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 and 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.

Editor’s Note: Sometimes, our posts include affiliate links to books and other homeschooling tools we’ve used and loved. If you buy something from our affiliate links, we could make a small commission at no extra cost to you. A thousand thanks for supporting us in this way!

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 to be chosen for a job in that field.

High School

  • Volunteer or plan to shadow. Have your high school students choose a job they want to learn more about. Have them arrange a day to volunteer with or shadow someone in that profession to experience the responsibilities and commitments necessary for success.  (Here are other ideas for high schoolers preparing for college.)
  • Talk about Labor Day in conjunction with your student reading The Jungle. This eye-opening and sometimes gut-wrenching book by Upton Sinclair sold over 100,000 copies in the first year of publication. Additionally, it was a catalyst for passing the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act.

Although it was a work of fiction, Sinclair spent seven weeks undercover in Chicago’s meat-packing industry. In his book, he exposed the meat contamination and appalling conditions suffered by workers in the industry. It’s an eye-opening and emotionally heavy book, but a must-read during your student’s high school career. It made a huge impact on my son!

Help bring your children’s home education to life by helping them appreciate true stories about how many children and their parents labored in the past. Teach your children the history of Labor Day.

In Him,

history of labor day- dana


P.S. If you have an almost or new high school student this year and you could use a roadmap to follow for teaching high school, get my 5 Simple Steps to Your Big Picture Plan for High School. In this free ebook, I’ll walk you through the process. All you need is my ebook and a computer. And in a few hours, you’ll have your roadmap!  You’ll be so relieved to have your big-picture plan for high school!

graphic of student holding her big picture plan for homeschooling high school



  1. 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 🙂

    1. 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!

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