As surely as the Earth rotates on its axis, religious and secular holidays bring with them disparate reminders of the origin, meaning and significance of such holidays. The following paragraphs on the origin of Labor Day in Maine in 1891 are in keeping with such inevitable reminders.

Surely, the celebrants of Maine’s first formal Labor Day appreciated the recognition given to the value and dignity of those who did the work of the world. And surely they applauded the festivities marked by colorful parades with their horses, floats, bands, drum corps and walking canes, as well as labor organizations wearing their colorful uniforms, holding their labor banners high and proudly marching in rhythm to the music. The games, the dancing and the presence of national labor leaders only added to the excitement associated with new beginnings.

And certainly, they were aware of the tumultuous industrial unrest in the nation. Between 1881 and 1900 the nation witnessed at least 23,000 strikes. Maine counted at least 176 strikes in that period and at least 21 strikes in 1886, its largest strike year up to that point. Federal or state troops were called out in over 500 labor disputes between 1877 and 1903. When over 3,000 Knights of Labor gathered on Peaks Island to celebrate Labor Day on Aug. 31, 1886, before it was christened an official holiday, they did so against the background of a national strike for the eight-hour day on May 1, 1886. The nation’s largest strike up to that time culminated in deadly violence in Chicago’s Haymarket Square.

The celebrants were aware that what one state official called “a spirit of unrest” in Maine was linked to the fact that workers labored in multistoried buildings without fire escapes and in which doors were often locked. Windows, too, were often closed, leading to repeated cries for fresh air. (The Biddeford textile mills eventually placed ground glass in the windows “so that the attention of the workers would not be ‘distracted,’ ” a state inspector reported.)

They knew of competition with convict labor; imprisonment for debt; irregular paydays; requirements that workers deposit two weeks wages in advance, to be forfeited if they left work without permission; the withholding of a portion of pay dependent on “good conduct”; paying a foreman to work, and bondage to the company store. They could point to being fined for imperfect work, accidental damage to property, being late for work, reading a labor newspaper and, yes, even for a fainting spell or failing to return to work immediately following a family funeral. Note the retail employee who worked in semi-darkness fearful that the goods might fade on her watch. Sometimes one’s entire pay was wiped out by fines.

They knew that a place to wash and exchange clothing was not part of the natural order of things. Women textile workers, for example, who generally changed street clothes for lighter garments, were compelled to do so behind the spinning frames and weaving machines. Unsanitary toilet facilities — if available — were not separated by sex.

They knew also that a place to sit could not be taken for granted. Note workers sitting on floors to experience a moment of rest or pleas for seats by horsecar drivers, who stood 15 or more hours a day.

Certainly the celebrants knew something of the human costs of disease and death in workplaces increasingly characterized by dangerous shafting, pulleys and belts, gear wheels, cogs and cylinders, shuttles, saws, planers, jointers, fumes, dust, poisons, etc. Workers were free to sign contracts that exempted employers from liability from the hazards suffered in the workplace.

They knew that some workers were expected to be regular in church attendance, feared testifying before legislative bodies, met secretly to organize unions, were “free” to sign contracts that prohibited them from joining unions and observed the “enslavement of little Caucasian children in the factories.”

They also knew that in 1889, on the eve of Labor Day, the Maine Legislature enacted a conspiracy law, which hobbled workers’ collective efforts to control their work lives, and refused to pass a measure to prevent blacklisting, signaling that any challenge to employers’ sovereignty over the workplace was a hazardous undertaking. While a secret-ballot law was enacted in 1891, curtailing employer intimidation at the polls, workers knew that democracy in the workplace remained an ideal and that Labor Day was not synonymous with utopia, as the organization of the statewide Maine Federation of Labor in 1891 would suggest.

These few examples, drawn from the catalog of indignities suffered by Maine workers, remind us that the true value of workers is not determined by the unbridled and supposedly immutable laws of the marketplace.

Charles Scontras is a historian at the University of Maine’s Bureau of Labor Education.

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