135 years ago, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and one of the founding members of the American Federation of Labor, Peter J. McGuire, described our country’s working men and women as those “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.” Some folks say those words were uttered to encourage establishing a day of recognition for the delvers and carvers. Others credit machinist Mathew Maguire for the notion of a national holiday in honor of America’s workforce. No matter at whose behest, clearly such a celebration was an idea whose time had come.
On September 5th, 1882, the rank and file of New York’s labor movement joined together in raucous conviviality for what turned out to be the first Labor Day Celebration. Upwards of 20,000 people filled the streets of lower Manhattan that Tuesday morning, ready for a day of marching, music and all-around merrymaking! Dubbed “a day of the people” by newspapers and considered a triumph by organizers, it wasn’t long before it became an annual event celebrated coast to coast. President Grover Cleveland signed the bill that made it official in 1894. The first Monday (as was originally planned) in September was finally a federal holiday – Labor Day.
In an interesting (and oft repeated) aside – copious amounts of beer were consumed during that inaugural bash. Most ‘First Labor Day’ descriptions include references to the numerous kegs of lager placed throughout Wendel’s Elm Park – the designated site for after-parade festivities. (Those delvers and carvers knew how to party!)
Yesterday’s workforce (like today’s) was dependent on immigrant labor. The flags of many nations decorated the park that day, reflecting the varied ancestry of the American Worker. Picnic-goers satiated their hunger with culinary specialties from around the world: Irish stew, German bratwurst… This was the America J. Hector St. John Crevecoeur had written about in “Letters from an American Farmer” more than a century earlier.
And more than a century later? The day is no longer dedicated to the wage-earners. Instead, it has morphed into a long weekend celebrating the end of summer. There are fewer parades, and Labor unions don’t play the part they once did in American life – but we still have picnics. And drink lots of beer. According to marketing charts compiled by Nielsen, we will quaff over 60 million cases of the malted grain beverage this weekend!
Source countries, taking a decidedly southerly turn, have changed both the complexion of the U.S. labor-pool and the flavor of our fetes. When the person next to you is of Hispanic or Asian descent you can expect some delicious menu changes at gatherings: Cuban black beans and rice, Mexican salsa, Asian sesame chicken wings… fiesta-fare guaranteed to make your mouth water!
The world may be a different place – but some things are still the same: we are still the melting pot society whose virtues were extolled long-ago by poets and playwrights. We are still the glorious sum of all our parts: America. The destination of dreamers the world over!
As we say goodbye to summer fun this weekend and turn our thoughts to fall, let’s raise a glass and give a toast to all the delvers and the carvers, past, and present, who gave us all this grandeur to behold.