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Early Labor Day parades included cigar-making, beer, and proposed live animal slaughter

Labor Day parade floats in the early 1900s.
Labor Day parade floats in the early 1900s.
Boston Public Library
Phil Edwards is a senior producer for the Vox video team.

Nowadays, Labor Day is marked by barbecues and odes to the end of summer, along with relatively simple parades that feature workers marching in celebration. For the most part, it's a summer bookend rather than a raucous party.

But it wasn't always that way. Labor Day parades began in the late 19th century as over-the-top celebrations of different trades, with laborers pulling out all the stops to show off what made their line of work unique. And that required some of the greatest parade floats of all time.

Early Labor Day parades included live cigar-making and much, much more

Labor Day, 1882

Labor Day, 1882.

Wikimedia Commons

Labor Day was first celebrated in September 1882, as recounted in the Department of Labor's capsule history of the holiday. The holiday started informally and slowly spread until it became a national holiday in 1894.

But the best thing about the first few Labor Days may have been the parades.

Because they came before the widespread use of cameras, we're left to guess at just what those glorious first parades looked like. But we know from contemporary news reports that as the crowds swelled to an estimated 10,000 people, the floats became mind-blowingly bizarre. According to the New York Sun, by 1884, various union demonstrators in New York City had the following demonstrations scheduled:

  • The typographical union planned to run a live printing press, once belonging to Ben Franklin, as they paraded down the street.
  • Cigar makers were set to run two wagons, on which they'd make cigars during the parade, distributing them to parade-goers as they went.
  • The best float, however, might have been one that never happened. Butchers in the city had prepared two abattoirs (slaughterhouses) on wheels, and they promised to butcher live animals during the parade. Yes, this would have been a parade with live cow slaughtering. Unfortunately, lawmakers said the demonstration was illegal, out of respect for "civilization[,] without which men are savages."

There were also massive numbers of beer kegs, "mounted in every conceivable place."

Of course, being 1886, there were also displays that don't mesh well with modern mores. In Chicago's 1886 parade, there was a huge 20-foot float that depicted a giant stamping out "cheap labor" represented by a "Chinaman." On the brighter side, that same year, most of the parades ended with a picnic.

Later parades were still impressive, but became more conservative over time

A Labor Day parade in Chicago in the 1900s

A Labor Day parade in Chicago in the 1900s.

Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

The early parades with the most insane demonstrations were in New York City, but as the holiday spread nationally, other regions and trades added their unique spin to the parade. The above picture shows a 1900s meatcutters' parade in Chicago, with distinctive dress to match.

In 1906 in Goldfield, Nevada, celebrants held a drilling contest for all to watch:

A Labor Day drilling contest in 1906

A Labor Day drilling contest in 1906.

Library of Congress

In the past hundred years, Labor Day parades have, for the most part, lost their raucous character in favor of more sober demonstrations (both figuratively and literally). The change is complex, but the Department of Labor puts forth the theory that the logistical concerns of large parades have limited their scope. There are probably political shifts too.

Whatever the reason, one thing is certain: We need to bring back the demonstration floats, for the free cigars, if nothing else.