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Woodward's Gardens Labor Day Celebration

Historical Essay

by Libby Ingalls


Woodward’s Gardens is best known as the fantasmagorical amusement park that dazzled the populace of San Francisco in the late 19th century. But it is also a landmark in San Francisco labor history as the site of the city’s first Labor Day celebration on May 11, 1886. Organized by the city’s Federated Trades Council, the celebration began with a 10-mile long procession of 10,000 men, representing forty unions. They marched to the Gardens for the grand culminating festivities. The May date was selected, rather than September, in order to celebrate the recent victory of the typographical union and to mark the one-year anniversary of the founding of the Iron Trades Council.

Labor Day celebrations were already taking place on the East Coast. The first Labor Day holiday was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City, sponsored by the Central Labor Union. In 1884 the first Monday in September was selected as the holiday, and the Central Labor Union urged similar organizations in other cities to follow the example of New York and celebrate workingmen on that date. The idea spread with the growth of labor organizations around the country.