Who Really Founded Labor Day?

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While Labor Day may now be associated with great sales, tasty barbeques, and the last hurrah of summer, the origins of the day tell a completely different tale. The day was originally established to honor the laborers and workers in the United States — and it wasn’t just about recognition and celebration.

During the industrial revolution, laborers throughout the world dealt with extremely harsh and inhumane conditions. With no labor laws yet in place, employers were under no legal obligation to provide their workers with the rights we all take for granted today: minimum wage, a safe work environment, basic hygienic commodities, and so on. Those rights only became commonplace thanks to the hard work of men and women who fought for them, sometimes risking their jobs, their freedom, and even their lives to protest the terrible conditions.

Labor Day was an initiative to raise awareness of the situation and help elevate the status of these workers who were sometimes treated as little more than slaves. It began with a parade in New York City on September 5, 1882, and the first Monday of September was slowly adopted throughout the United States as an official holiday celebrating workers.

Illustration of the first American Labor parade held in New York City on September 5, 1882 as it appeared in Frank Leslie’s Weekly Illustrated Newspaper’s September 16, 1882 issue.

Most sources credit a man named Peter McGuire with the invention of the concept of Labor Day. However, evidence has come to light that there may have been someone else — another trade union leader with a similar last name — who actually suggested the idea.

So who really founded Labor Day? Our Research team dug into newspaper collections to investigate.

Peter McGuire: Founder of Labor Day?

Peter J. McGuire was born in New York on July 6, 1852 to a large Catholic Irish family. He had to quit school at a young age to go to work and help his family make ends meet, and his experiences as a child laborer led him to dedicate his life to improving working conditions for workers in the United States.

Peter J. McGuire (July 6, 1852 - February 18, 1906)
Peter J. McGuire (July 6, 1852 – February 18, 1906)

At first, he was a political activist, believing that political organization would be a more effective way to ensure workers’ rights than unionism. During this time, he advocated strongly for the 8-hour workday, and led a successful strike of carpenters in St. Louis for this cause.

Eventually, he changed his mind and supported trade unionism. He became the vice president of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, and during its first 20 years was one of its most important leaders.

The MyHeritage research team found several articles crediting Peter McGuire with the establishment of Labor Day. According to the Central New Jersey Home News from New Brunswick, New Jersey, in 1937, Peter McGuire was revered as a local hero:

The Central New Jersey Home News, New Brunswick, New Jersey, September 5, 1937, page 51
The Central New Jersey Home News, New Brunswick, New Jersey, September 5, 1937, page 51

“Peter J. McGuire, ‘Father of Labor Day,’ modest figure in American history, is scarcely known throughout the nation, but in his southern New Jersey community his memory is revered,” the paper reports. “Hundreds who know of the bitter struggle waged to advance the position of organized labor annually bow in homage at his simple grave in picturesque Arlington Cemetery.”

Another article that ran the next day in The Morning Post from Camden, New Jersey, painted a similar picture:

The Morning Post, Camden, New Jersey, September 6, 1937, page 16
The Morning Post, Camden, New Jersey, September 6, 1937, page 16

“Forty-three years ago the dream of a young Camden carpenter came true,” the article begins. “On that date Labor Day was born, the creator of this holiday for the worker being the late Peter J. McGuire, whose body lies buried in Arlington Cemetery, and whose grave is ever a shrine at which the loyal labor unionist bows on Memorial Day.”

“While others beside McGuire share in the credit of the formation of the American Federation of Labor,” it continues, “Peter J. McGuire alone deserves the credit for the establishment of Labor Day.”

31 years later, the Cincinnati Enquirer presented this colorful depiction of Peter’s “eureka” moment:

The Cincinnati Enquirer, Cincinnati, Ohio, September 1, 1968, Page 66
The Cincinnati Enquirer, Cincinnati, Ohio, September 1, 1968, Page 66

“‘Wife,’ Mr. McGuire continued, ‘Why not have a day for all of us laborers. We could call it… eh… I don’t know, maybe… Labor day. Yes, that’s it. This could be a festive day during which there would be a parade through the streets of the city that would permit public tribute to American industry,’” wrote Bob Rothe of the Enquirer staff. “Mr. McGuire went to a meeting of the Central Labor Union on 13th Street in New York City. That was May 18, 1882. Peter J. McGuire presented his idea. There were a few giggles, but September 5 of the same year saw 10,000 laborers marching through Manhattan.”

These sources all clearly indicate that Peter J. McGuire was the undisputed founder of Labor Day.

However, there are other sources that contradict this and give the credit to someone else: Matthew Maguire.

Matthew Maguire ‘never really cared who was credited with founding Labor Day’

Matthew Maguire (1850-1917) [Credit: Find A Grave]
Matthew Maguire (1850-1917) [Credit: Find A Grave]
Matthew Maguire was born on June 28, 1850, also in New York. 

He was a machinist and served as secretary of the Central Labor Union, and according to some accounts, the first Labor Day parade in 1882 was actually proposed by him, not by Peter McGuire.

Consider the following clipping from The News of Paterson, New Jersey, printed in July 1896:

The News, Paterson, New Jersey, July 10, 1896, page 1
The News, Paterson, New Jersey, July 10, 1896, page 1

“Mr. Maguire claims to be the author of Labor Day,” it reads.

This article from The Record of Hackensack, New Jersey, ran in 1973:

The Record, Hackensack, New Jersey, September 2, 1973, page 81
The Record, Hackensack, New Jersey, September 2, 1973, page 81

“Irish family claims kin is Labor Day creator,” reads the headline.

“Matthew Maguire never really cared who was credited with founding Labor Day,” the article states, “and until 1967, the credit traditionally went to Peter J. McGuire, an official in a Camden carpenters’ union. But in September 1967, the Paterson Morning Call published a copyrighted article indicating that Matthew Maguire, not Peter J. McGuire, started Labor Day.”

“Peter J. McGuire’s claim is based on a story he wrote in 1882 in a labor magazine noting that he suggested at a meeting of labor officials that a holiday for the working man be established,” the article continues. “But research conducted by a Morning Call reporter showed that the meeting McGuire described did not occur and that Maguire was credited with founding Labor Day from 1894, when it became an official holiday, until 1924, when McGuire’s claim was substituted.”

The MyHeritage Research team managed to build a family tree for Matthew Maguire and track down a living descendant: William (Bill) Collins, Matthew’s great-grandson. The team reached out to him to hear his opinion on the matter.

Bill is 75 years old and is originally from New Jersey, but has been living in Florida for the past 3 years. A retired high school U.S. history teacher, Bill was familiar with the history of Labor Day and believes that his great-grandfather was indeed the founder. He said there is a record that proves it, but was unable to find it.

So who is the true founder?

Without any concrete evidence one way or the other, it’s impossible to know which account is correct. What is clear is that both of these men devoted their lives to creating a better, safer, and more dignified life for their fellow workers, and both contributed enormously to bringing us where we are today in terms of labor laws.

No matter who is the true founder of Labor Day — today we raise a glass to both of them, and to all the workers and laborers throughout the world, the bedrock of modern society.

What do you think? Who is the real founder of Labor Day? Dive into our newspaper collections and see if you can solve this as well as your own family mysteries!

Read more about what the MyHeritage Research team discovered in the New York Times and Time Magazine.

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  • Jeronimo Cordoba


    September 7, 2020

    Exelente