Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Labor Day

A post about Labor Day 
by Stephanie Grace Whitson

How did your family celebrate Labor Day this past Monday? Were you able to spend the day the way you wanted to, or did someone in the family have to go to work? I was racing toward a September 15 deadline, and so I worked. But I did take a few minutes to learn a bit about the origins of Labor Day. I didn't know that it was a result of the "Labor Movement" at the end of the 19th century, and that it became a national holiday in 1894.

The American Worker deserved to be celebrated. Long hours and what we call “sweat equity” did a lot to develop the tradition that a strong “work ethic” is a virtue. But along the path to developing a healthy work ethic, there were many missteps that the Labor Movement would address over the years.

Child labor was one reality that needed changing, and it raised issues that weren’t necessarily “black and white.” After all, any child raised on a farm will tell you that they learned to work hard and long at a young age, because farming families work together. Children can provide meaningful help, and they feel good when they contribute to the family. That’s a good thing. But prior to the enactment of child labor laws, children could easily be exploited. During the Industrial Revolution, entire families often went to work in a factory where the “work week” was 68-72 hours long in dangerous conditions. Even after labor laws were enacted, they didn’t always apply to immigrant children.

The photograph at right shows a group of "Breaker Boys," who were employed in the coal industry early in the 20th century. According to a 1902 study, nearly 18,000 persons were employed as slate pickers in the anthracite coal industry. "The majority of these are boys from the ages of 10 to 14 years."

“A picture is worth a thousand words,” and just as photographer Jacob Riis did much to call attention to the plight of immigrants in the city of New York, so did a photographer named Lewis Hines do much to decry the plight of child workers when, in 1909, he published the first of many photo essays showing children working in potentially dangerous places. See some of his copyrighted work here:

Here’s a photo that reminds me to be thankful for the hard work of others. Because Grayson Irvin (shown here in the uniform he wore to work) spent long hours behind the wheel of a truck, hauling freight for Yellow Transit, I had a childhood free from hunger. I had the freedom to study and to get a high school diploma (Daddy never got beyond the 8th Grade, because he had to drop out and got to work to help feed his siblings).

I'll end this blog post on a happy note. The photograph on the right is my favorite "Labor Day" photograph. Why? Because in September of 1982, I labored (literally) to bring a little boy into this world. And here he is today...a hard-working husband and father and a superb fisherman. My truck-driving Daddy loved to fish. He'd be proud, and so am I.
  • Has a photograph ever inspired you to make a change for the better, either in your own life or in the life of another person?
  • When did you get your first job?
  • Belated Happy Labor Day!


  1. What's most rewarding to me as a parent is to have our grown kids thank us for giving them a good work ethic. Working hard changes lives for the better.

  2. That's one of the joys of growing older, isn't it. Watching the next generation pick up the torch ... and realizing that we did our best to give them good life skills. SUCH a blessing.