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The First Labor Day Parade Nearly Fizzled

September 5, 1882–The first labor day parade nearly fizzled. The streets of lower Manhattan near City Hall were packed with spectators, all vying for a good spot to view the first Labor Day Parade in America. According to the Department of Labor, a newspaper account of the day described “…men on horseback, men wearing regalia, men with society aprons, and men with flags, musical instruments, badges, and all the other paraphernalia of a procession.”

Also out in force were the police, on foot and horseback, anticipating a riot. By 10 a.m., the parade’s Grand Marshall, William McCabe, flanked by his aides and police escorts, was ready to commence the parade.

Something Was Missing From The Labor Day Parade

So what went wrong? Everyone was ready to march.  All heads started turning, searching for the band to start playing, but there was none. After a restless wait, the audience was about to give up, when Matthew McCabe ran across the lawn with news. (Same name as the parade organizer, but not the same man.)

The Jewelers Union of Newark had just crossed the ferry to join the parade and they brought their own band. A little after 10 a.m., with the band playing “When I First Put This Uniform On,” from Patience, an opera by Gilbert and Sullivan, the parade began.

More than 700 men marched in the first three divisions. An estimated 10,000 to 20,000 men and women marched through lower Manhattan that day. According to the New York Tribune, “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.”

Around noon, the parade concluded at Reservoir Park. Most of the marchers gathered at Wendel’s Elm Park at 92nd Street and Ninth Avenue for a post-parade party parade with picnics and “Lager beer kegs… mounted in every conceivable place.” Nearly 25,000 union members and their families celebrated into the night.

Nellie Bly: Labor Is No Parade

The Industrial Revolution of the late 1800s was one of American labor history’s most dismal chapters. The average person worked twelve-hour days, seven days a week, just to make a meager living. Children as young as five or six worked in factories, mines and mills across the nation.

Nellie Bly became the voice of the American worker, with her first-person articles that uncovered unsafe and unsanitary working conditions.
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