Every year, American workers enjoy a legal holiday known as Labor Day, but many don’t know the details of its origin. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, agriculture was the primary occupation for the majority of people around the world. And the associated hard physical labor wasn’t only a man’s job.
Women regularly handled a number of physically demanding tasks, such as gathering wood, drawing and hauling water, churning butter, and grinding grain with a stone device called a quern — among other things. Typically, childbirth and the several weeks afterward provided the only break a woman had from these chores.
A different kind of revolution
The advent of the Industrial Revolution changed everything for both men and women. Prior to this, the homestead was the hub of productivity and family life. But increasing industrialization shifted much of the focus from the home and agrarian life to work outside of the home. At first, many families — including children — worked as teams in the factories.
Factory work often took a harsh toll on women and children with management relegating them to toil in conditions that would never be tolerated today. Historians believe this is what gave rise to men becoming the sole provider and women taking over the majority of domestic duties in the mid-1800s. Britain first took action to remedy this by raising the minimum age for child labour in industrial settings. They also set limits for working hours for women and restricted them from performing certain dangerous, heavy jobs.
Electricity – the sign of change
Women as the primary managers of household budgets and all things domestic continued until well into the 1900s. When electric power came on the scene in the last years of the 19th century, things began to slowly change for women. Electricity gave rise to the innovation of labor-saving machines like vacuum cleaners, clothes washing machines, and dishwashers. This reduced the amount of time women spent on basic homekeeping duties.
The establishment and growth of public education opened up opportunities for both women and men, but it gave opportunities to women that otherwise didn’t exist. A woman with school-aged children could teach at the same school (often only one room for all grade levels) her young children attended. As towns grew, women — usually unmarried — expanded into work as secretaries and nurses.
At the height of the Industrial Revolution, the average person worked seven days a week, and at least 12-hours a day. Children as young as 5 toiled in mines, factories, and grain mills. They earned only pennies compared to their adult coworkers. People of all ages faced horrifically unsafe working conditions, had no breaks, no access to fresh air, and had no access to proper toilets.
Workers began to organize and strike in protest to the poor conditions, hoping to force employers to guarantee better working environments and a fairer wage. On September 5, 1882, ten-thousand New York City workers stayed away from work to march in protest, holding the first unofficial Labor Day. The idea of an official holiday for workers caught on and Congress passed the act, which President Grover Cleveland signed, on June 28, 1894.
Celebrate this Labor Day with pride
We’re all workers. Whether we’re doctors, lawyers, grocery store baggers, or even stay-at-home moms. Everyone can use a day off to relax, celebrate, and recognize the contributions that so many laborers made in order to better the workplace by ensuring safety and standards were enacted and followed.