Thursday, August 29, 2013

Labor Day in Schenectady


A man lifts a banner championing the eight-hour movement in this drawing from the Salt Lake Herald dated September 3, 1906. A caption below the drawing simply reads, "His Day and His Flag." Image from www.loc.gov

"Labor Day is about the most correctly named holiday we have, as most people work harder when taking a holiday than they do at their every day occupations."
- Quaker Street Review, Thursday, September 16, 1897.

The residents of Schenectady County have celebrated Labor Day for more than 125 years. Although the holiday has its origin in the struggles that labor unions undertook on behalf of American workers, for many of us, it's simply a nice long weekend -- a last chance to enjoy the summer before fall settles in. Such a conception of Labor Day is certainly not new; it seems to have been a part of the holiday's celebrations from the beginning.

The first Labor Day holiday was celebrated on September 5, 1882, in New York City, and was planned by the city's Central Labor Union. In 1884, the Central Labor Union urged unions in other locales to celebrate a "workingmen's holiday" on the first Monday in September. New York was among the first few states to adopt Labor Day as an official state holiday in 1887. Many states followed suit over the course of the next few years, and in 1894, the United States designated Labor Day a national holiday.

Newspaper rendering of first Labor Day parade in New York City in 1882. Image from www.wikipedia.org

Another labor holiday that has largely failed to take hold in the United States -- although the origins of the holiday are American -- is May Day (now also known as International Workers' Day), celebrated on May 1. In October 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions unanimously decided at a convention to set May 1, 1886, as the date by which an eight-hour work day would become standard. On May 1, 1886, a general strike and demonstrations were held in support of the eight-hour day movement, which championed eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, and eight hours for recreation for workers. An international meeting of Socialists in 1889 decided to encourage solidarity with the struggle for the eight-hour day by making May 1 an international labor day. As May Day developed as a holiday associated with radical labor unions, anarchists, and socialists -- as well as with the commemoration of the 1886 Haymarket Tragedy in Chicago -- trade unions advocated the September date for Labor Day perhaps in part to distance themselves from the radical political associations of May Day.

On New York State's first official Labor Day in 1887, the Albany Evening Journal reported, "the celebration has been taken in charge by the various labor organizations of respective localities and while the primary ideas of the day, recreation and rest, are emphasized, at the same time the occasion will be taken to show the numerical strength of organized labor throughout the state."

The organizers of the 1911 Labor Day celebration in Schenectady, as they appeared in the Schenectady Gazette. Left to right: J.T. McConville, Alexander Golden, E. Dwelly, P.J. Hemmerling, Fred LaCrosse, A.W. Slover, L.J. Humpf, Michael Kennedy.  All were members of the Schenectady Labor Temple Association. Image from www.fultonhistory.com

In Schenectady, during the late 1800s and early 1900s, many Labor Day celebrations were organized by the Schenectady Labor Temple Association and the Schenectady Trades Assembly. These celebrations often featured a parade, followed by picnics and other festivities. A number of groups marched in the 1900 parade, including the Schenectady Police, the Citizens Corps Band, and numerous trade unions such as the Blacksmith Helpers, the Iron and Brass Moulders, the Journeyman Tailors, the Musicians Protective Union, and the Tip and Sheet Metal Workers. In 1911, the Labor Temple Association organized a parade that marched from the Trades Assembly Hall on State Street, up State Street, around Crescent Park (now Veterans Park), to Washington Avenue and across the dike to Glenotia Park in Scotia for a general celebration, picnic, and field day.

Other organizations, including fraternal organizations and churches, also sponsored Labor Day commemorations or celebrations in Schenectady. Some were explicitly connected with the concept of labor, such as a special sermon on "The Dignity of Labor" delivered at the Second Reformed Church in 1911. Others celebrated with relaxation, sports, and coming together as a community. In Schenectady during the late 19th and early 20 century, Labor Day celebrations included baseball, basketball, and croquet games, picnics, hot-air balloon rides, wrestling matches, track meets and field days, golf and bowling tournaments, clambakes, fireworks, concerts and dances, and other amusements. Newspaper notices on the society pages of area newspapers show that many Schenectadians used the Labor Day holiday as an opportunity to visit family and friends, go on camping trips or pleasure trips, or to host visiting relatives.


In the early years of the twentieth century, as now, businesses used the Labor Day holiday as a focus for advertisements, sales, and promotions. This 1911 advertisement for the New York Central railroad promoted Labor Day excursions to Niagara Falls, and appeared in the Schenectady Gazette. Image from www.fultonhistory.com.

For some local people, Labor Day remains a celebration of the laborer and the contributions of labor unions. Louis Altieri of Schenectady was quoted in a 2001 Daily Gazette article as saying, "Labor Day is very important to me. It gives me a chance to reflect on all the sacrifices people had to go through in the labor movement to achieve benefits. I hope people look at Labor Day as a day of thanksgiving for what people have done."

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