In 1894, Congress passed into federal law the national observance of Labor Day, a day of “rest and recreation” for the “laboring man” to reinforce his “honorable as well as useful place in the body politic.” Twenty-three states (North Carolina not among them) had already been celebrating a “labor day” in the years preceding 1894, and the tradition garnered enough Congressional attention to rise to the level of a federal holiday.
Because this tradition wasn’t broadly adopted in North Carolina until it became a federal holiday, most mentions in the state’s newspapers preceding 1894 report on other states’ celebrations like this clipping from the September 5, 1888 Daily Review out of Wilmington which warns of “red-handed and black-hearted Anarchists.”
While we don’t see them as much today, parades were a near requirement of early Labor Days, with labor organizations creating floats and marching in celebration. The closing of businesses and a rest from all kinds of work were also a requirement. When North Carolina newspapers start mentioning the observance of Labor Day, there’s another recurring theme: Barbecue. One of the earliest examples we could locate, from 1907, talks about “a big barbecue and brunswick stew” served up at the fairgrounds in Raleigh.
Barbecue (frequently FREE barbecue) continues to be mentioned as part of the main event. In 1912 Spencer had a “big barbecue” and a “big parade,” along with games, races, fireworks, and “a demonstration in motor plowing.”
We hope you’re celebrating Labor Day by resting from work and enjoying delicious barbecue or the North Carolina delicacy of your choice!