May Day, Workers’ Day, and Labor Day

Ehrhart, S. D. , Approximately , Artist. In the merry month of May / Ehrhart. , 1905. N.Y.: J. Ottmann Lith. Co., Puck Bldg. Photograph.

May Day (May 1st) has a fascinating history as a public holiday around the world. Today, it is observed in many European cultures and celebrates the return of spring. Its origins stretch back into antiquity and through the medieval period, including festivals marking the change in season. Added over time was a maypole, that is a decorated pole people would dance around. The rituals were also performed in hope of a good season for crops and livestock. Over time the significance of the holiday was gradually lost. The Puritans that came to the New World viewed this practice to be pagan and forbid it. This is perhaps why the holiday never caught on widely in the United States (May Day, 2020).

Today, May Day is also known as Workers’ Day or International Workers’ Day and celebrates workers in the labor force. In Chicago on May 3, 1886 a strike at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company, part on a national effort for an 8 hour workday, turned violent. There was a gathering the next day at the Haymarket Square, which turned even more violent when a bomb from an unknown assailant exploded. This incident became known as Haymarket Riot or Haymarket Massacre. (Haymarket Affair, 2020).

In 1889, a international federation of socialist groups and trade unions declared May 1st to honor labor in commemoration of the Haymarket Affair in United States, Canada and across Europe. Five years later U.S. Pres. Grover Cleveland, uneasy with the socialist and anarchist origins of Workers’ Day, signed a law making the first Monday in September a national holiday, Labor Day. Shortly there after Canada followed. (May Day, 2020).

May Day march in New York City, May 1, 1909. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

This post was contributed by Joan Wagner, Chief Librarian at the School of Health Sciences


Haymarket Affair. (2020). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from

May Day. (2020). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from

May Day. (2020). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from

Further Reading

Foner, Philip Sheldon. May Day : a short history of the international workers’ holiday, 1886-1986. International Publishers, 1986. Possibly available here:

Haverty-Stacke, Donna T. Americas Forgotten Holiday: May Day and Nationalism, 1867-1960. New York University Press, 2009.

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