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MIKE KEELER: A Slow Starting Parade

Mike Keeler

The first blast was almost a bust.

On September 5, 1882, a few hundred working-class folks gathered in the streets of lower Manhattan near city hall, intending to hold a parade. It was a rag-tag group; some were wearing professional uniforms, some had flags, a few were on horseback. But they were well outnumbered by policemen, who had come out in force to prevent a possible riot.

The leader of the group – one William McCabe, self-appointed “Grand Marshall” of this parade – was disappointed by the small turnout. And around 9AM, he also realized that he had no music to lead any kind of organized procession. Things looked pretty grim.

And that’s when the jewelers showed up. Around 10AM, a group of about 200 men from the Jewelers Union of Newark arrived, having been delayed while crossing the Hudson River ferry. Best of all – they had a band! They were playing “When I First Put This Uniform On” by Gilbert and Sullivan. Like magic, the disorganized mass fell in line behind the band and headed north up Broadway. They numbered about 700 men.

The idea of a parade to celebrate the working class was originally conceived by Matthew McGuire, a machinist and head of the Central Labor Union. And the date of September 5 had been chosen to give working folks a day off at the rough midpoint between Independence Day and Thanksgiving. The day was also a Tuesday, so as the parade continued north, it passed by lots of busy shops and offices…

… and it attracted lots of attention. Folks peered out of windows and poured into the streets to get a better look. The New York Tribune reported that, “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.” Many of the onlookers took off their aprons and put down their tools and joined the growing throng. By the time the parade reached – of all places – Union Square, the gathering was massive. The City of New York later reported that over ten thousand people had joined in.

Around noon, the parade reached its end at present-day Bryant Park. Some of the participants headed back to work, but many continued north to Wendel’s Elm Park at 92nd Street and 9th Avenue. Other unions heard about what was happening, and joined in. As the afternoon wore on, folks kept arriving, hundreds at a time.

There were impromptu speeches, games, lots of cigars, and “lager beer kegs mounted in every conceivable place.” The festivities went on for hours, until finally petering out around 9PM. In the end, approximately 25,000 union and family members had participated in the celebration.

And that’s how a poorly organized parade blossomed into a massive impromptu festival of working-class pride.

On history’s first recorded Labor Day.

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