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The First Labor Day Parade That Almost Wasn’t -- and how a small band from New Jersey saved the Day

by Aaron Noe

The end of the 19th Century proved to be a pivotal moment for the United States. The Industrial Revolution brought many advancements to our society. Industry, new technologies and a transcontinental railway catapulted the nation into world recognition as a leader in the 20th Century.

However, through the words and images of journalists like Jacob Riis, Ida B. Wells, and Upton Sinclair, we know that the progress we made came at cost. The industrial moguls of the 19th Century built their empires on the backs of the men and women struggling to support their families. Concepts such as minimum wage, workplace safety, and an 8-hour workday were foreign to the Industry of the 1800s.

The 1880’s saw the movement of labor unions and human rights blossom to combat the work conditions in factories, railroads, and textiles. In September of 1882, the unions of New York sought to bring the movement to light with a parade; a day set aside to honor and celebrate the Laborers of Industry.

However, the first Labor Day Event almost ended before it began.

On the morning of September 5, 1882, Laborers from New York and surrounding areas answered the call from the Central Labor Union (CLU) and William McCabe, the parade organizer. The CLU was a consortium of labor unions within New York and New Jersey and the workers showed up in force taking unpaid day to participate in the event.

That morning the crowd of spectators began to gather in lower Manhattan around the Courthouse. So many people answered the call that the police feared a riot would ensue. There was only one problem: the musicians who showed up weren’t organized, they didn’t have music. McCabe knew the parade would be a disaster if there were no musicians to lead it.

As the hour drew near to the 10 a.m. start to the parade, organizers were scrambling on what to do. How could they have a parade without a band to lead the procession?

Many officials repeatedly suggested that the parade must happen with or without a band. McCabe knew the event that had been planned must go on even though he knew it would not be a success without music leading this momentous occasion.

Suddenly, Matthew Maguire (of the Central Labor Union of New York and whom many attribute as the “father of Labor Day”) appeared after running across the great lawn of the courthouse. Eager to share some good news on what was turning out to be a disastrous morning, he approached McCabe and proclaimed, “Two Hundred Marchers from the Jewelers Union of Newark Two have just crossed the Ferry. And they have a Band!”

Shortly after 10 a.m., lower Manhattan was filled with the sounds of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “When I First Put This Uniform On” from Patience, proudly played by the Band of the Jewlers Union of Newark Two. The 200 union members followed in stride with the band. The police mounted their steeds and took their place to escort the procession and McCabe and his aids filed in behind them.


As the parade began, 700 men from the jewelers, the bricklayers, and the typographical unions lined up in the first three divisions of the parade.

The little band from Newark led the parade through the streets of Manhattan. The New York Tribune wrote, "The windows and roofs and even the lamp posts and awning frames were occupied by persons anxious to get a good view of the first parade in New York of workingmen of all trades united in one organization." As the parade passed, the procession grew as spectators joined the march!

At noon, the crowd arrived at the end of the parade in Reservoir Park and included nearly 25,000 men and women with their families, celebrating the very first Labor Day celebration.

The celebration lasted through the afternoon and into the night of the very first Labor Day Parade ... that almost wasn’t!

Sources & More Reading:

A Short History of America’s First Labor Day Celebration

by Emma Newcombe


Labor Daze - Pride, Chaos and Kegs on Labor’s First ‘Day’

Top 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Labor Day

“The First Labor Day Celebration Was in New York City”

By Erin Skarda, Monday, Sept. 05, 2011


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