Past Treasure of the Month – September 2017
This month Rosenberg Library exhibited a ribbon badge from the 1896 Labor Day celebration in Galveston. Labor Day has been celebrated on the island since at least the late 1880s, and in 1896, the celebration was the most elaborate and best attended to date. C.H. McMaster donated the ribbon badge to the Library in 1922. McMaster was the President of the Galveston Chamber of Commerce during the late 19th century.
The History of Labor Day
Held on the first Monday each September, Labor Day is an annual holiday celebrating the achievements of hardworking American men and women. Although it didn’t become an official federal holiday until 1894, individual cities throughout the U.S. began celebrating “workingmen’s holidays” during the 1880s at the height of the Industrial Revolution.
It was during this era that labor unions became more active in advocating for workers’ rights. Many Americans who were employed in the manufacturing sector worked 12-hour days, 7 days each week. These laborers — some of whom were children — often faced unsafe working conditions in mills and factories where they were employed for meager wages. Organized union strikes became more common, and in some instances, violent. After federal troops were dispatched to Chicago in June 1894 to end a strike of Pullman rail car workers, a series of brutal riots broke out, resulting in the deaths of more than a dozen Pullman employees. In an attempt to make amends with American workers and to quell national unrest, Congress passed an official act designating Labor Day a national holiday.
One hundred twenty-three years later, Americans still observe the first Monday in September as Labor Day. The holiday has also come to symbolize the official end of the summer season.
Labor Day in Galveston
Just two years after Congress made Labor Day a federally recognized holiday for working people, Galveston hosted its own community celebration. Union members representing a variety of local industries participated in a parade in the downtown business district. Longshoreman, carpenters, electricians, and cooks marched along with farmers, members of the press, and professional musicians. They carried banners and props related to their respective crafts. A large crowd of onlookers gathered along the route to watch the parade which was led by mounted police officers and dignitaries in carriages.
During the afternoon, citizens gathered at Woollam’s Lake, an entertainment venue located at the corner of 41st Street and Avenue Q. There they enjoyed a picnic, speeches, sack races, running and jumping matches, and tug-of-war contests.