Labor Day Collectibles

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Hat ribbon of Brotherly Union Society in Philadelphia, circa 1820s. (Library of Congress, M. Carson Collection.

Long unnoticed, the collectibles of the Labor Day holiday are gradually gaining in recognition. It’s about time. After all, it is an event that has been celebrated nationally since the latter part of the 19th century.

Some true treasures of the American labor movement actually predate the establishment of Labor Day itself. In the Marion Carson Collection of the Library of Congress is a hat ribbon worn for a labor organization parade in the 1820s. The parade was staged in Philadelphia by the Brotherly Union Society. During that decade the journeymen house-carpenters of that city made the first attempt to get the hours of work reduced to ten a day. The effort was unsuccessful.

Historians generally agree that the first actual Labor Day parade was held in New York City’s Union Square on Sept. 5, 1882. Interestingly while the holiday has traditionally been thought of as always being observed on a Monday, the first parade was actually on a Tuesday according to records of the United States Department of Labor. It was held under the direction of the Central Labor Union in that city.

Possibly one of the first Labor Day parade collectibles appeared just one week later in the form of the news magazine Frank Leslie’s Illustrated. The Sept. 16, 1882 issue featured drawings of the event. Marchers were depicted in the artist’s rendering as carrying banners and signs with such slogans as “Vote for the Labor Ticket,” “Labor Creates All Wealth,” and “8 Hours Constitute a Day’s Work.”

Published images of American worker in the 1880s, according to a study done by the Smithsonian Institution a century later was a “stereotype of a lone, white, male craftsman in a mechanic’s paper hat, carrying dinner pail.” Such characterizations appeared in magazines and on product labels.

In the years that immediately followed the first parade, labor organization moved the event to a Monday, thus providing one of the 19th century’s first three-day weekends for workers. The “working men’s holiday” idea also spread to other major cities where unionization was fairly well established.

Some accounts say the first Monday in September was favored because it came at the “most pleasant season of the year” midway between the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving, and thus would fill a gap in the chronology of legal holidays. Most research indicates that the general idea in New York, Philadelphia, and other industrial centers was to provide for parade to show strength and solidarity, to be followed by a festive family picnic.

Little by little such labor union-related events spread to other cities and came to the attention of individual state legislatures. Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Nebraska and Pennsylvania jointed the ‘parade’ by establishing Labor Day as an official holiday.

Eventually the American Federation of Labor forecast “it shall be as uncommon for a man to work on that day (Labor Day) as on Independence Day.” That prediction became a reality in 1894 when the U.S. Congress passed an act making the first Monday in September of each year a legal holiday in the District of Columbia and all U.S. territories.

As the 19th century came to a close Labor Day celebrations, especially parades and similar outings, became widespread. Likewise there were numerous decorative items produced to be worn on such occasions. Striking multi-color celluloid pin back buttons were manufactured by the Whitehead & Hoag Company and others. Typically they included a slogan, “The Union Is Strength,” and symbol of patriotism including the U.S. flag or an eagle along with a symbol of unity such as a handshake. There were multi-colored ribbons too which could be attached to the lapel of a jacket or the front of a shirt. The wording on the ribbons might be as basic as simply the words “Labor Day” or elaborate enough to show a worker with the American flag and a hammer – all in red, white and blue.

Early in the 20th century, in addition to pin back buttons, lapel ribbons and various badges, citizens could also celebrate the holiday with postcards. Nash Publishing Company produced a set of two embossed fully illustrated Labor Day souvenir postcards. One proclaimed, “Labor shall refresh itself with hope,” while second declared, “Labor Conquers Everything.” (Indeed the image of the laborer on postcard number two was much as image Smithsonian had earlier described, “a lone, white, male craftsman in a mechanic’s hat…” Lounsbury Publishing did a set of four Labor Day postcards similar in style to those by Nash. The Lounsbury titles included Makers of Prosperity, Man in Overalls, Labor Taking a Day Off, and Our Latest Holiday.

According to Susan Nicholson, author of The Encyclopedia of Antique Postcards, the Lounsbury set was published in more limited numbers. The fourth card of the series, Our Latest Holiday, featuring a Labor Day parade which also included Santa and Uncle Sam is the most highly sought of the four. Meanwhile numerous other publishers also issued postcards of actual Labor Days parades during the early 1900s including one in Sapulpa, Okla.

Labor Day buttons and ribbons had taken decidedly more patriotic tone by 1917 and 1918 within the shadow of World War I red, white and blue Labor Day ribbon dated 1918 proclaimed, “We’re Behind the Man Behind the Gun.” It bore the illustration of a worker rolling up his shirt sleeves with factory smoke stacks in the background.

Later Labor Day parades and events also produced memorabilia ranging from photographs of parade floats to booklets and programs. In 1945, Victory Labor Day Rally celebrated both the efforts of organized labor and efforts of U.S. troops in World War II. Noted the multi-paged program issued by the Baltimore, Maryland Congress of Industrial Unions:

“One this day, labor’s traditional holiday, we salute our fellow trade unionists in the armed forces and merchant marine who, scattered over the four corners of the earth, cannot be here to share in the celebration of Labor Day.”

In 1982 Carolrhoda Books Inc. published one of the few books devoted entirely to this particular holiday. Labor Day by Geoffery Scott, was illustrated by Cherie Wyman and described the origins of Labor Day including a “monster labor festival” held in New York City a century earlier.

While still a major American holiday, observance of Labor Day has changed from earlier decades according to the U.S. Department of Labor, and elaborate displays and massive parades are no longer as prevalent as they were in the heart of the 20th century.

More Images:

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Labor Day souvenir postcard, early 1900s, embossed series.
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Postcard of Labor Day parade in Oklahoma, circa 1914
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Victory Labor Day rally program, 1945, Baltimore C.I.O.
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Guest badge for Labor Day event, 1900, Atlanta Federation of Trades.
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Labor Day badge proclaiming progress and unity, dated 1908

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