On May 1, 1916, employees of the Puritan Underwear Company participated in the May Day worker’s parade in New York City. As captured in a photograph by the Bain News Service, a crowd of marchers parts for the camera to reveal a group of jaunty young women wearing pins and sashes while proudly hoisting a banner in the form of an oversized chemise, fastened with a Puritan pennant on its front. They may have also been on strike.
Members of the White Goods Workers, Local 62 of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), these needle trade workers took part in an annual practice of May 1 workers’ parades initiated by U.S. labor organizations to commemorate a tragic set of events in 1886 Chicago while also celebrating worker solidarity. By 1890, May Day had become International Workers’ Day, which with time—and under various names including May Observance, Workers’ Day, or Labour Day—has turned into an annual holiday in countries around the world.
Known as the Haymarket Affair, the harrowing events of May, 1886, began with more than 400,000 Chicago workers joining a nationwide general strike for an 8-hour work day that, in ChicagoExternal, escalated into strike-related clashes and loss of life. May 1 and May 2 saw peaceful protests, but May 3 brought picket line violence when police fired into a crowd. On May 4, a bomb tossed at police during a workers’ meeting in Haymarket Square led to further confrontation. The bomb blast and ensuing gunfire resulted in the deaths of eight police officers—mostly from friendly fire—and an unknown number of civilians. In the widely publicized legal proceedings that followed, eight anarchists were singled out and tried for murder on the basis of their political views rather than any evidence of their guilt in throwing the bomb. Four of the eight were convicted and executed by hanging, in November, 1887, while one committed suicide in prison; the remaining three were eventually pardoned. Collectively, these men came to be known as the Haymarket Martyrs, with a monument erected to their memory in 1893.
May Day as a holiday has its roots in celebrations of Spring going back at least to ancient Roman times, as well as in more recent European folk traditions such as bringing in the May in Britain and North America. Rituals including dancing ‘round the maypole saw revivals in popularity in the same years of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that the workers’ parades gained prominence. Over the course of the twentieth and now twenty-first centuries, May Day-specific workers’ celebrations have taken a variety of forms. In the U.S., May Day as worker’s day has been associated with social justice, and international, progressive causes. Paradoxically, May Day parades with their strong dissent-based roots were adopted as official ceremonies in countries such as the communist Soviet Union and its satellites, where they served to reinforce the nation-state’s homogeneous symbolic power rather than the people’s collective resistance. As one Smithsonian blog author writes, “Depending on your age, you might associate May 1 with dancing around a maypole in elementary school or watching tanks proceed through Moscow’s Red Square on the evening news.”
In 1955 at the height of McCarthyism, the U.S. Congress designated May 1 as Loyalty Day, to counter what was increasingly perceived as an annual communist-led protest (before that, Americanization Day had a similar goal). President Dwight Eisenhower issued a May 1 Loyalty Day proclamation as well. Since the late 1950s, each Congress and each President has continued the tradition, with presidents using their Loyalty Day proclamationsExternal to address the concept of loyalty in remarkably varied ways. Despite the longstanding U.S. holiday of Labor Day on the first Monday in September, May Day has remained a focus of organized protest and dissent around the needs of the working classes, most recently for groups such as Occupy Wall Street and immigrants’ rights advocates.
- Search the Bain Collection on May Day for many additional images of New York City’s May Day parades in the first decades of the twentieth century. See, for example, men with a banner for the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, marching in a procession on May Day, 1914; and silk strikers’ children from Paterson, New Jersey, arriving in Union Square on May Day, 1913.
- Learn about the Haymarket Affair, sometimes also called the Haymarket Riots. Search the Library’s collections on Haymarket, but also be sure to read about the Haymarket handbills and Haymarket Affair: Topics in Chronicling America. In Today in History, read about the 8-hour Work Day and anarchist Emma Goldman.
- Music has long been significant to the labor movement. Among the music collections at the Library of Congress are the papers of the Workers Music League donated by musicologist Charles Seeger, father of Pete Seeger, the renowned American folk singer. Of note in this context, the quintessential American classical composer Aaron Copland, whose collection is also held at the Library, wrote “Into the Streets May First” for voice and piano as a setting for a poem of the same nameExternal by Alfred Hayes. Copland won a competition with the piece—sponsored by the Workers Music League—leading to its publication in The New Masses on May Day 1934External. In a letter to his friend Carlos Chavez Copland noted with interest that the song had been reprinted in Russia.
- Read more about the history of working and living conditions, and reform. Start, for example, with the Bread and Roses Strike of 1912, then view photographs from the National Child Labor Committee Collection. See the online exhibit Jacob Riis: Revealing “How the Other Half Lives” and learn about Songs of Unionization, Labor Strikes, and Child Labor.
- View the early film footage that makes up Inside an American Factory: Films of the Westinghouse Works, 1904. Search the Library’s online collections on worker, factory, or the name of specific trade union groups such as Teamsters, Sleeping Car Porters, or Garment Workers.