Washington Frolics on the First Labor Day: 1894

Image Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

Lady Typographers in the 1909 Labor Day Parade, New York City. Image Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

Mrs Daffodil thought perhaps her readers who are not otherwise occupied in becoming sunburnt, dining al fresco, or drinking stuff from chilled bottles instead of a proper pint, might enjoy hearing how the first National Labor Day was celebrated in the nation’s capital in 1894.  


The Celebration at the National Capital Was Worthy of the Purposes of the Day


Washington, Sept. 3. The first celebration of Labor Day as a national holiday is being fittingly observed at the national capital.

Also, for the first time in their history, all the local labor organizations united for a common purpose without a squabble or jealousies, and did honor to the occasion. This was only befitting, inasmuch as the Washington organization were instrumental in establishing the holiday as a national institution.

Plasterers’ Assembly, No. 2,672, of the Knights of Labor, in this city, claim the credit of initiating the movement to pass a bill through congress declaring the first Monday in September a national holiday under the name of “Labor Day.” Many states had previously authorized a similar celebration, but this was the first attempt at national recognition. The bill was championed by Senator Doyle of South Dakota, and was passed without difficulty, it becoming the law by the president’s signature June 28 last.

The local labor organizations paraded today in four great divisions, each averaging about 3,000 men in line. They assembled in the vicinity of the city hall and began moving shortly after 10 o’clock. Nearly every organization was headed by its own band, and the din of conflicting strains of music was deafening.

Weather conditions were most favorable. The haze which softened the sun’s rays was welcome in itself, though its presence was painfully suggestive of the calamitous fires devastating the northwest. In the line of procession were numerous floats representing the various industrial organizations of the labor bodies. Old style Columbian hand printing presses were contrasted with modern printing machinery. Horse shoers, brick makers, book binders, bakers, cigar makers, plate printers and numerous other mechanics exhibited their handiwork in motion, and various grotesque features were added for the amusement of the crowds, which were very large, as all the public departments were closed.

The most novel feature of the day occurred at the top of the capital building. The chief participants were Albert Ports and James Grace, riggers, employed by the architect of the capitol. Last week Ports distinguished himself by climbing up the gigantic figure of the goddess of liberty, surmounting the dome and placing there a circle of electric lights which were used for illuminating the dome during the encampment of the Knights of Pythias. It was the first time a man had stood there since the goddess was put in position. This morning Ports started in to remove the lights and connecting wires with the assistance of Grace. They mounted the goddess by means of a ladder held by the capitol employes from the topmost window of the dome. It was 5 o’clock a.m. when they began and the risky work was completed three hours later. By that time, a big crowd had collected in the capitol grounds watching the two riggers who looked like flies crawling up the great bronze figure.

At 8:30 o’clock Grace sat astride the broad shoulders of the goddess, and with the help of Ports, placed a gigantic wreath on her brow. The wreath was nearly four feet in diameter and was composed of palm leaves, roses and carnations. Then Grace read an invocation to freedom, written by a Washington woman, Mrs. Louise Bailey. The people, nearly 500 feet below, could not hear him, of course, but they understood what he was doing.

They saw him fold the manuscript , and then to the horror of many Ports began climbing to the top of liberty’s cap. When he reached the pinnacle, he hesitated a moment and then slowly and carefully raised himself to an erect position. For a minute he stood there in the presence of the crowd below with Grace still astride of liberty’s neck. Ports made the descent as slowly and carefully as he had made the ascent, and he and Grace reached the landing in safety. The wreath was allowed to remain about the brow of the goddess until just before the 10 o’clock hour, when Ports and Grace repeated their dangerous journey and removed it.

Another quite notable feature of the day was the first production of Innes’ new cantata, “War and Peace,” a spectacular musical production at the national baseball park, in the hearing of an appreciative audience of nearly ten thousand persons. The catchy use made of the war songs of North and South, and the realistic effect of artillery and military movements , under the direction of Capt. Dommer, who commanded the crack prize drill company in the District of Columbia National Guard, supplemented by Innes’ great band and drum corps, made the presentation a marked success.

Macon [GA] Weekly Telegraph 6 September 1894: p. 5 

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  The idea of a holiday devoted to the working class is an idea foreign to the Empire, although in England, May Day is celebrated as International Workers’ Day by the Bolsheviks. Mrs Daffodil should like to see them try to organise her staff. 

Mrs Daffodil is full of admiration for the aerial exploits of the daring Mr Ports. She has not been able to identify the literary work of Mrs Louise Bailey, who was a member of the DAR. If her work was anything like most invocations to Freedom written by 19th-century clubwomen, it is probably a blessing that the crowd could not hear it.  As for the musical part of the entertainment, somehow it is incongruous to find the terms “catchy” and “war songs” used in the same sentence.

Mrs Daffodil, of course, does not have the week-end off. Bank holiday or no, at a stately home there are still fires to be laid, cans of hot water to be fetched, hampers of picnic dainties to be packed, and cheeky footmen to be admonished. However, Mrs Daffodil wishes all of her readers a happy, sunny, and ant-free Labor Day.


One thought on “Washington Frolics on the First Labor Day: 1894

  1. Pingback: The Conversation Crammer and other Odd Occupations for Ladies: 1890-1936 | Mrs Daffodil Digresses

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