In 1884, when President Grover Cleveland signed the bill making Labor Day a national holiday on the first Monday in September, he and its sponsors intended it not as a celebration of leisure but as a promotion of the great American work ethic. Work, they believed, was the highest calling in life, and Labor Day was a reminder to get back to it. It was placed at the end of summer to declare an end to the season of indolence, and also to distance it from May Day, the spring event that had become a symbol of the radical labor movement.
The day most of us now spend in happy leisure was created to urge Americans to work more, not less. The holiday’s inventors would have been dismayed to see that Americans today would use it only to float in a pool, play putt-putt golf, or – even worse – to fantasize about a life in which they do nothing but play.
Labor Day, perhaps more than any other holiday, has always embodied a contradiction in American society, the deep gulf between the nation’s self-image and the way its people often behave. And to understand why is to get a clearer look at an important but little-understood piece of our own history: America’s long civil war over fun.
Check out the full piece and read more about this American contradiction.