Image from: https://www.businessinsider.com/labor-day-history-2017-8
The first Monday in September is Labor Day. Most of us believe people get the day off to celebrate the importance of workers to our country. The truth is we all don’t get the day off. On Labor Day people work in retail, restaurants, police departments, fire departments, hospitals, government, and private companies.
As my sources note, we also have no real rituals connected to the holiday. Oh, we might have a picnic or a barbecue. We might travel somewhere for a long weekend. For others, the day marks the last day in the pool, or (in New Jersey) a last visit to the Shore. For kids in northern states, it is their last day of freedom before the school year starts. And, of course, there are the Labor Day sales, where we can pick up new clothes and other items.
So, what the heck is this thing? Why do we really have it? After looking at three articles online, I think it grew out of several things: the desire to bring small unions together beginning in 1882, a bloody strike in 1894 and President Grover Cleveland’s move to smooth things over with fellow democrats, many of whom were Roman Catholic unionists, and the call to reduce the number of working hours and days for employees.
As far as I'm concerned, there is no ultimate answer. Like many things historical, Labor Day appears to have emerged from multiple forces.
Let’s start with the first real Labor Day. It was organized by the Central Labor Union in New York City and held on Tuesday, September 5, 1882. It consisted of a parade, and was followed by a picnic. The goal was to “bring many small unions together to achieve a critical mass and power. The organizers of the first Labor Day were interested in creating an event that brought different types of workers together to meet each other and recognize their common interests.” Since there was no local or federal Labor Day holiday at that time, the union called a one-day strike, which I find to be a unique way of playing hooky. (Zagorsky) And so, one of its roots is in worker solidarity and power.
But, as Cain's article in the Business Insider points out, there is another side to Labor Day that is violent. All the following information about the Pullman Strike of 1894 comes from Cain's article.
In the train industry, Pullman cars were considered to be the epitome of luxury. Founder George Pullman treated his workers well. He provided them with company-owned living quarters. How lavish the homes, apartments, and dormitories were depended upon one’s status in the company, of course. The higher up you were, the better your housing was, but even the worst accommodations were far from being tenements.
Everything was going well until a Panic (depression) began in 1893, and would not end until 1897. Faced with a plummet in profits, Pullman decided to deal with the economic disaster by lowering employee wages. Eventually he cut wages by 30%. The trouble was that he refused to lower the rent on both company-owned housing and the cost of items in the company’s stores.
Finally, on 11 May 1894, with the support of the American Railway Union, Pullman workers began a strike.
Despite the offers of numerous groups to serve as mediators, George Pullman stubbornly stood his ground and would not meet with the strikers. Growing criticism was leveled at Pullman, and the emboldened president of the American Railroad Union, Eugene Debs, announced that its members would not work on trains having Pullman cars. Train traffic west of Chicago came to a halt.
The railroad companies, faced with a declining profit margin, did what many companies do when faced with a strike: they hired “scabs” (non-union-affiliated workers). In retaliation, crowds of railroad workers and others tried to stop the trains from running by standing in front of the tracks and throwing objects at the trains.
Predictably, things got worse. A group representing the Chicago railroad companies asked Attorney General Richard Olney to intervene and he was able to get an injunction to stop the strike. However, John Peter Altgeld, the governor of Illinois, refused to authorize President Cleveland to send in federal troops. In the end, though, the federal government sent soldiers to stop the strike. In addition, the Chicago railroad managers group deputized federal marshals.
Violence took over as federal forces did battle with the strikers. By the time it was all over, 30 people had died and $80 million had been accrued in riot damages. Cain’s article in the Business Insider postulates that it is likely President Cleveland proclaimed Labor Day as a workers’ holiday to please his constituents, many of whom were urban, Catholic, and Democratic workers.
However, Zagorsky’s article in The Conversation suggests that Labor Day came about due to pressure put upon government officials and business owners to decrease the number of hours and days employees were required to work.
Zagorsky notes that workers in manufacturing during the 1830s averaged a 70-hour work week. That comes to a 10-hour day, seven days a week. By 1890, workers were still on the job 60 hours a week (meaning they had a 10-hour day, if they worked six days a week). However, by that time, unions had begun pushing for an eight-hour work day, a six-day work week, and more days off.
The good news is that the movement did not meet with resistance from politicians and business owners. Well, that's a shock. Why would they that? The answer is simple: a consumer society was emerging. The logic is if workers had a bit of free time, they would take trips, eat out, and spend money on other forms of entertainment. (Zagorsky)
The controversy, then, was not whether workers should get a holiday, as well as adjusted hours and working days. No. According to Zagorsky, the controversy was about the shape the new holiday would take. Would it be more militant with demonstrations and protests and located on the first of May (May Day), as communists and other socialists suggested? Or would it be a more moderate affair of picnics and parades and held in September?
I guess you know which version won. Americans usually take the middle way. (Remember, I said usually.)
I want to mention one last point that Zagorsky raised. These days, not only do some people engaged in retail, restaurants, essential services, and so on have to work on Labor Day, but a growing number of us are don't get the day off, either. Email, phones calls, and texts from co-workers or bosses can call us to answer a question or solve a problem, no matter what the day is. Heck, they can even chase us down when we’re on vacation.
So, I am suggesting this: take the day off if you are able and be kind to those who can't. Don’t look at your devices unless you absolutely have to. Instead, have a picnic. Go for a walk. Play a board game with your kids. Go for a swim.
And remember… your employment is valuable. You are valuable. You contribute to our nation.
Happy Labor Day!
I'll see you Tuesday! Yes, I'm taking Monday off.
Áine Cain. Business Insider. “The US celebrates Labor Day because of a bloody clash over 100 years ago that left 30 people dead and cost $80 million in damages” Sep. 2, 2017.
Union Plus. Labor Day History: Celebrating the Workers Who Make America Run
Jay L. Zagorsky. The Conversation. The Eclectic Economist: “Have We Forgotten to the True Meaning of Labor Day?” August 29, 2017
I could make this a two-sentence blog. I did a research paper on an event that occurred in in Warren County, New Jersey in the late 1850s. My setting and period were pre-determined.
But that is not the full truth. I mean, it certainly was true of the first novel, Saint Maggie. But what about the rest?
When I started getting the “what happens next” question from readers who liked my characters and wanted more books about them, I had no idea what I was going to do. I liked the characters, too. Maggie is so kind and true to her beliefs, Eli is questioning and challenging, Frankie is delightfully outspoken, Lydia is calm and focused, Emily is honest and loyal, and Nate is direct and unafraid. They’re a good mix.
Around the time that I was visiting with book clubs, Dan and I had visited Gettysburg. Somehow the power, pain, and sadness of the place stuck with me and I thought, “I wonder what would happen if Maggie ended up in Gettysburg?” And I was off. How I got the family there in Walk by Faith involved having the boarding house and Gazette shop burn down and the family threatened by a gang of punks. They are particularly vulnerable, since Patrick and Edgar are in the army, and Eli and Carson are serving as war correspondents. The women, Grandpa O’Reilly, and Nate Johnson are left to fend for themselves. Nate has an especially rough time because Maggie’s brother, Samuel, hires him to work as chief wheelwright at his carriage manufactory (which now is making wagons for the army). Nate hits racism straight on when the younger men who report to him, decide to jump him after work one day. After another threat aimed also at Samuel and his family, it was time to leave.
Eli’s family were Pennsylvanians, which was a natural, since that is where many Quakers settled. Eli’s father, who owned a dry goods store, gravitated to Gettysburg and had a house built there. By 1863, the family still owns the house, but it is used by members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church to hide and move self-emancipators. With Eli’s Blaineton family in crisis, his sisters Becky and Sally arrange to have the family live in Gettysburg and help the AME church with its efforts. It was a great opportunity to look at life in the town before the battle. What surprised me was how many “alarms” there were. Weeks before the battle, the town’s folk were on edge and subject to rumors of Confederate incursions.
Little did I know that moving my characters to Gettysburg would be more than a one-book adventure.
Getting them back to Blaineton, New Jersey was problematic because, as I’ve said before, I planned to bring my cast of characters home in A Time to Heal. When they refused to move (they claimed they had issues, which indeed they did), I had to find a story post-Battle-of-Gettysburg. The problem: there are tons of resources on the battle, but they dry up once you are past July 3 or July 4. After considerable research, I focused on the hospital in the old Smith House (Gettysburg) and the Middletown house where Eli and Nate move their wives. The creation of Letterman General Hospital and a storyline regarding the departure of two Confederate soldiers from the Smith house brought things together for me. In this case setting and period determined what I was able to do plot-wise.
In Seeing the Elephant, I finally got everyone back to Blaineton (except for self-emancipator Matilda Strong and her daughter Chloe, who moved to Canada). Now I had a new problem. New Jersey never experienced a battle during the Civil War, so no more big, dramatic battle scenes. However, New Jersey did have a significant population of Copperheads (Democrats who opposed the war, wanted an immediate reunion with the South, and who disliked Republican Abraham Lincoln). They were on the opposite side of abolitionist and pro-war Republicans like Maggie and her family. (Except, of course, for Eli who is will never be pro-war, thanks to his Quaker upbringing.) However, I really did not want to go into that dynamic. Still, the setting dictated that local issues needed to rule the day. So I worked with Eli settling into his new position as Editor-in-Chief of the Blaineton Register, and with returning soldiers some of whom exhibit symptoms of what we now know is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, something with which Eli also struggles. My decision to introduce a Kirkbride-style insane asylum with a superintendent who promotes the Moral Treatment Method was worked for the time period. I also introduced a Gilded Age harbinger with industrialist Josiah Norton. It seems to me that my decision to return the family to the setting of Blaineton and following the family's timeline into 1864 are the things that dictated the plot.
My novella, The Enlistment, set in 1862, has Frankie disguising herself as a boy and running away to Camp Fair Oaks in Flemington to join (she hopes) her beau Patrick as part of the New Jersey Fifteenth Volunteers. The original idea was to have her run away. Research done for Walk by Faith, indicated that Patrick and Edgar likely would have signed up in August 1862, a big recruitment period for northwestern New Jersey. I was delighted to learn that Flemington was the location for the recruitment and found several sources, one of which had been written as a memoir by the regiment’s chaplain. In this case, I think history dictated the story’s period and setting.
The short story, The Christmas Eve Visitor, takes place in Middletown, Pennsylvania in 1863. The house is the setting, as a snowstorm has everyone stuck inside. Essentially, this story could have happened anywhere it snows. However, I wanted to set it in Christmas of 1863, a period during which the family still would be feeling the sting of the battle and the losses it brought. In this case, the needs of my story drove the period and setting.
The other Christmas short story is The Dundee Cake. I wrote it, not just because I wanted to do another Christmas story, but also because I wanted to do a prequel telling how Maggie and Emily became friends. I set it in 1852, a time during which widow Maggie Blaine was struggling to maintain a boarding house after the death of Aunt Letty. The location, of course, had to be Blaineton because that is Maggie’s hometown. It was the character of Maggie and her history that dictated the where and when of the story.
My most recent novella, The Great Central Fair originally was a story about Patrick returning home on leave before taking up his new post at Mower General Hospital in Philadelphia. It had been part of Seeing the Elephant but I cut it out because it muddied the novel’s main plot. Next, I tried to make it part of The Good Community, which I’m still writing. Once again, though, it got in the way. I cut it out and, not wanting to let go of the story, decided to turn it into a novella. Because of its previous location in The Good Community, the story had been set in June 1864, right after the events in Seeing the Elephant. What I didn’t realize was that the story's period coincided with the Philadelphia Sanitary Fair of 1864 (a huge event to raise funds for the Sanitary Commission). Serendipity? Maybe. Not only could my characters visit Philadelphia, but they also could go the fair (something they certainly would know about). I also could use a visit to the fair to enlighten readers about the series of sanitary fairs held during late 1863 and into 1864. Philadelphia also is the home of the photography gallery that shows Chester Carson’s work, as well, and I was able to write a small side-story about Carson’s relationship with Alfred Benning.
All things considered, my Maggie stories’ settings are determined sometimes by plotting, but also by previous books and by my characters and their history. As for the period… well, that was settled in the first book. Except for The Dundee Cake, they all fall into the 1860-1864 period. So far.
Tomorrow: I stop talking about my books and present a little information on the history of Labor Day.
Image: Ford Mansion (Washington's Headquarters), Morristown, NJ. National Park Service
I know I’ve mentioned this before, but I’d like to go into the topic in a bit more depth.
I was lucky enough to have had parents who thought history and education were important. I was in the second half of third grade when we moved to Parsippany, New Jersey. Parsippany is in Morris County and during the American Revolution Morris County saw a bit of action.
When I was a child, they took me to visit Washington’s Headquarters (the Ford Mansion, pictured at top) in nearby Morristown. George Washington used the house as his headquarters during the winter of 1779-80. I remember being intrigued as I looked at the period furnishings. I wondered what Washington was like as a person and what Mrs. Ford, the widow who owned the mansion, was like.
Jockey Hollow, also in Morristown (see photo below) is where Washington’s troops encamped from December 1779 to June 1780. They survived the coldest winter on record living in log huts. Either with my family or with my Girl Scout Troop, I can't remember which, I visited those huts and wondered what it was like to live in them in such cold weather. Then I compared how the average soldier lived with Washington’s considerably more comfortable existence over in the Ford Mansion.
Photo of soldiers' huts. National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/morr/index.htm
:When I was in 8th grade, my parents took us to visit Washington, D.C. where we toured the Smithsonian museums and gazed at the White House and the Capitol. Then we went to Williamsburg, Virginia and toured the historical area. My parents had stayed there during their honeymoon in 1951 and had been impressed with the way Colonial Williamsburg endeavored to recreate an entire town on the bones of an existing one. That visit blew my mind because it was as close to historical immersion as I had ever been. I remember going through the Brush-Everard House, standing in a bedroom, and wondering what it must have been like to have woken up there.
Photo Left: ongoing archeological dig near the Palace, from my collection, taken June 2018.
Right: Brush-Everard House, from Colonial Williamsburg,
It is no accident then that I chose to work in Colonial Williamsburg while researching my dissertation at Randolph-Macon College over in Ashland. My research had nothing whatsoever to do with the colonial era. It covered the Vacation Bible School Movement in the Peninsula from the late 1800s to the early 1960s. But I loved sitting in that little outbuilding next to the King’s Arms Tavern and inputting data into a computer while listening to the clop of horse hooves and the crunch of wagon wheels along the street, the crowing of roosters, and the bleating of sheep. It was the best working environment ever.
The love of history and curiosity nurtured in me by my parents was augmented by college professors who made history come to life by relating stories about the people who “made” history. (On some level, don’t we all make history?) When I went to theological school and later to graduate school I began to understand that the macro view of history was built out of people’s stories.
Somewhere along the line, I also began reading historical fiction, and I’m sure it was because of the story element and my curiosity: what was it like to live in times past? What were people's interests? Their passions? Their fears? I primarily devoured books set in the nineteenth century, but occasionally wandered into other eras.
I write historical fiction because because I'm curious about other eras and the people who lived in them. For me, every story starts with the question, "what if?" I try to bring to life lives that are long gone and environments that now seem strange or quaint or off-putting. I try to understand the “why” behind the events of a bygone era and the impact those “whys” may still have on us.
Tomorrow: How I chose my setting and period.
Image: Sarah Rosetta Wakeman. American Battlefield Trust. Civil War Biography: Sarah Rosetta Wakeman.
There are many books and articles available that deal with women passing as men among the ranks of Civil War soldiers. One of them shows up in my novella, The Enlistment. My main sources were the articles found in the Civil War Trust website and Lauren Cook Burgess’ curation of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman’s letters. These gave me insight into the life of female soldiers, who they were, and why they fought. The Civil War Trust’s web page, “Female Soldiers in the Civil War” notes that while women’s participation in the military was secretive and thus makes hard numbers impossible to obtain, “conservative estimates of female soldiers in the Civil War put the number [of women soldiers] somewhere between 400 and 750.” Interestingly, women joined up for many of the same reasons as men: patriotism, pay, the desire for adventure, and more. They also enlisted if a loved one, such as a husband, was in the service.
We may wonder why females in the ranks were not more readily discovered. Incredible as it seems today, several reasons have been suggested. 1) Victorian modesty dictated that things such as bathing and attending to nature’s call often were done in private, thus many soldiers would be modest. 2) Soldiers tended to sleep in their clothing. 3) Physical examinations were cursory, so if the prospective soldier did not present with obvious signs of illness, he was deemed healthy and there was no need for him to remove his clothing. 4) Uniforms were heavy and bulky. 5) The general lack of military experience among men meant that female soldiers experienced the same learning curve as the men and did not stand out among the ranks. 6) Gender in the nineteenth century was associated with the clothing one wore. Succinctly put, if a woman donned men’s clothing, she was perceived to be a man, at least by other men. Despite their masquerade, thought, writes Lauren Cook Burgess in her Introduction to An Uncommon Soldier, other women did seem to be able to recognize their same-sex comrades. She postulates that this may be because women could see beyond the façade of dress. Thus, in The Enlistment, Bill Crenshaw recognizes Frankie, even though Maggie’s daughter is dressed as a boy.
My character Bill Crenshaw has her roots in Union soldier Sarah Rosetta Wakeman. Like Wakeman, Bill left a household comprised of numerous mouths to feed and an indebted father. Women were paid low wages and had limited job opportunities, so when Bill, like Wakeman, saw that he could earn more money as a soldier and realized it would help her provide additional income for her families, she enlisted.
Frankie’s reasons, of course, are very different from Bill’s and Wakeman’s. She is upset over Patrick’s enlistment, questions why only men may fight, and decides to do something about it. Her adventures at Camp Fair Oaks provide answers for her.
Many women fought side by side with men during the Civil War. While some were discovered, usually after being injured, many more were never outed. But, regardless of whether they were identified or not, they fought with valor, just like their male counterparts.
"Female Soldiers in the Civil War." Civil War.org. n.d.
https://www.civilwar.org/learn/articles/femalesoldierscivilwar (accessed June 06, 2017).
Wakeman, Sarah Rosetta. An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, alias Pvt. Lyons Wakeman, 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers, 1862-1864. Edited by Lauren Cook Burgess. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.