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16 Vintage Photos of Labor Day Celebrations

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Library of Congress

While most of us now celebrate Labor Day with barbecues or end-of-summer vacations, the holiday was originally much more focused on labor unions and was meant to celebrate the economic and social contribution of blue collar workers. In fact, the holiday was only made a federal celebration in 1894 in an attempt to placate labor unions after the famous Pullman Strike, which resulted in 30 deaths. This labor-centric meaning is particularly apparent when looking at vintage photos of the holiday like these, which are courtesy of the Library of Congress.

1. Parades Galore

Original documents aiming to establish Labor Day as a holiday called for a parade that would be followed by family-friendly festivities. As a result, parades were a huge part of the celebrations during the early days of the holiday as you can see in the top picture from the Fireman’s Labor Day Parade from 1929.

2. Unions Uniting

Not only were the unions a big part of the reason the holiday was created, but they continued to be a big part of the celebrations for years to come. In fact, many of the early parades were made up largely of groups of different local union workers, like the Women’s Auxiliary Typographical Union pictured here in 1909.

3. Fundraising for Strikers

The parades also provided unions with a good opportunity to raise funds to support striking union workers, like this man was doing on behalf of the Furriers Union in 1915.

4. Fun and Games

Of course, like modern parades, there were still plenty of fun sources of entertainment for kids. These four clowns, for example, were happy to amuse the crowd in the Silverton, Colorado parade of 1940.

5. The Band Marches On

Similarly, even a small silver mining town like Silverton, Colorado had a high school marching band present to bring a little marching music to the parade, as you can see in this 1940 image by Russell Lee.

6. The Float with the Most

As the years wore on, the floats got more elaborate and the parades started attracting larger crowds as well. Here’s a group that was fortunate enough to have balcony seating for the 1940 Labor Day Parade in Du Bois, Pennsylvania, as photographed by Jack Delano.

7. Patriots Unite

When WWII rolled around, the unions continued to provide floats for the parades, but they focused their float themes on patriotism and winning the war. In 1942, photographer Arthur S. Siegel captured the Detroit Local 600 of the Congress of Industrial Organizations showing their electrical workers electrocuting Hitler.

8. Outhouse HQ

Even the clowns at that 1942 Detroit parade had it out for Hitler, showing his headquarters were holed up inside of an outhouse all while promoting bonds to support the war effort. Photograph by Arthur S. Siegel.

9. Raise the Flag

Even in the midst of electrocutions and outhouses though, the Detroit parade still made a place for this adorable little girl with her American flag to show her support for the war effort and Labor Day festivities. Image taken in 1942 by Arthur S. Siegel.

10. Contests for Kids

As for those family-friendly festivities, well, those varied from location to location, although classic picnic games like potato sack races seemed to be pretty popular across the board. I don’t know who won this particular race shot in 1940 by Russell Lee in Ridgeway, Colorado, but I’d put my money on the big kid on the left.

11. Kiddie Rides

Depending on the size of the festival, some places would even put up fun carnival rides for the kids. I particularly love this picture of a tiny miner from Silverton, Colorado, taken by Russell Lee in 1940.

12. Family Togetherness

The best part of the Labor Day past and present might just be families getting to spend a nice weekend together, like these miners enjoying the holiday with their youngsters back in 1942. Photo taken in Silverton, Colorado by Russell Lee.

13. Friendly Competition

Not everyone put away their tools on Labor Day. In fact, the miners of Silverton actually competed to show off who was the best driller. Here’s one participant hand drilling on a massive boulder, as photographed by Russell Lee.

14. Racing the Day Away

Of course, while many people enjoyed watching contests on Labor Day, most didn’t want to work on the holiday. That’s why going to the race track was so popular in Benning, Maryland back in 1916. Labor Day races like this one included both motorcycle and car events.

15. Barbecue for All

While many modern Labor Day celebrations revolve around backyard barbecues, they used to be much larger, community affairs. In fact, this 1940 celebration in Ridgeway, Colorado required dozens of volunteers to prep, cut and serve the massive, free barbecue that fed practically everyone in the whole town. Photo by Russell Lee.

16. Waiting for a Feast

Despite the rain, everyone at the 1940 Ridgeway barbecue seemed grateful to wait in line for such a delicious Labor Day treat, presumably only furthering that feeling of community. Image taken by Russell Lee.

This post originally appeared last year.

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History
10 Facts About the Battle of Bunker Hill
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The battles of Lexington and Concord—which kicked off the clash between Great Britain and the colonies—were historically and politically important, but relatively small in scale. The battle of Bunker Hill, however, was another story: Fought on June 17, 1775, it had a sky-high body count. Though the colonies were defeated, American forces performed so impressively and inflicted so many casualties on their powerful opponent that most rebels took it as a moral victory. Here’s your guide to the Bay State’s most storied battle.

1. ITS NAME IS A MISNOMER.

Massachusetts's Charlestown Peninsula, located just north of Boston, was a strip of land with great strategic value. In June 1775—less than two months after the bloodshed at Lexington and Concord—word was circulating that the British aimed to seize the peninsula, a move that would strengthen their naval presence in the area. To prevent this, the Massachusetts Committee of Safety (a patriot-run shadow government organization) ordered Colonel William Prescott to build a fort on Bunker Hill, near the peninsula’s northern shore.

On the night of June 16, Prescott marched 1000 men south of Charlestown Peninsula. Whether because he was intentionally disobeying orders or simply couldn’t find the right hill in the dark, he had his men fortify Breed's Hill rather than Bunker Hill. Toiling through the night, the militia men dug a wide trench surrounded by 6-foot dirt walls. In retaliation, the Brits attacked the next day. Following a barrage of cannonballs launched by His Majesty’s ships, hundreds of Redcoats landed on the peninsula and repeatedly charged the makeshift fortress.

The vast majority of this action took place on or around Breed’s Hill, but the name “Battle of Bunker Hill” remains in use. In the 1800s, Richard Frothingham theorized that the 110-foot Bunker Hill was a “well-known public place,” while the smaller Breed’s Hill was a less recognizable landmark, which might be the reason for the confrontation’s misleading moniker.

2. ONE PARTICIPANT WAS THE FATHER OF A FUTURE U.S. PRESIDENT.

America’s fourteenth Commander-in-Chief, Franklin Pierce, is primarily remembered for signing the controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act during his one-term White House stint. Pierce’s father, Benjamin, fought on the rebellion’s side at Bunker Hill and later became Governor of New Hampshire. Another noteworthy veteran of that battle was Daniel Shays, after whom Shays’ Rebellion is named.

3. THAT FAMOUS ORDER “DON’T FIRE UNTIL YOU SEE THE WHITES OF THEIR EYES!” MIGHT NOT HAVE BEEN SAID.

According to legend, this iconic order was either given by Prescott or Major General Israel Putnam when the British regulars first charged Breed’s Hill in the early afternoon. Because the rebels had a gunpowder shortage, their commanders instructed them to conserve their ammunition until the enemy troops were close enough to be easy targets.

But as author Nathaniel Philbrick pointed out in this interview, there’s no proof that anybody actually hollered “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes,” which has been quoted in countless history textbooks and was even riffed in one of Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons. “We know that someone said ‘Hold your fire until you see the whites of their half-gaiters,' which [were] the splash guards on the regulars’ feet,” Philbrick said. “That doesn’t have the same ring to it.”

4. OVER 100 BLACK SOLDIERS TOOK PART.

An estimated 150 African-Americans, including both slaves and freemen, fought the British at Bunker Hill. Among them was Salem Poor, an ex-slave who bought his freedom in 1769 at the price of 27 pounds. During the battle, he fought so valiantly that many of his white peers later petitioned the Massachusetts General Court to reward Poor for his heroism [PDF]. Another black combatant, Peter Salem, is sometimes credited with shooting Major John Pitcairn, a British marine whose commanding role at Lexington had earned him notoriety in the colonies—though other sources cite Poor as the infamous redcoat’s killer. Salem himself had fought at Concord and would later see action in Saratoga and Stony Point.

5. WHEN THE PATRIOTS RAN OUT OF AMMUNITION, MANY RESORTED TO CHUCKING ROCKS.

The British's first march on Breed’s Hill quickly devolved into a bloody mess. Rather than spreading themselves out, the advancing infantry arrived in a tightly-packed cluster, making it easy for rebel gunmen to mow them down. The redcoats were also hindered by the rough terrain, which was riddled with rocks, holes, and fences. These factors forced the British into an inglorious retreat. After regrouping, the infantrymen marched on the hill once again—and, just as before, they were driven back.

The first two assaults had thoroughly depleted the colonists’ supply of ammunition, leaving them vulnerable. When the redcoats made their third ascent that day, the rebels had nearly run out of bullets. Struggling to arm themselves, some colonists improvised by loading their muskets with nails, scrap metal, and broken glass. As a last-ditch effort, several dropped their firearms and hurled rocks at the invaders. Such weapons proved insufficient and the Americans were finally made to abandon the hill.

6. THE REDCOATS SET FIRE TO NEARBY CHARLESTOWN.

Charlestown, now one of Boston’s most historic neighborhoods, was originally a separate village seated at the base of Breed’s Hill. Once a thriving community with 2000 to 3000 residents, the locals—afraid for their safety—started abandoning the area after that infamous “shot heard round the world” rang out at Lexington. By June 17, Charlestown had become a virtual ghost town. During the Battle of Bunker Hill, American snipers took to stationing themselves inside the empty village. So, to protect his own men, British General William Howe ordered that Charlestown be burned. The troops used superheated cannonballs and baskets filled with gunpowder to lay the town low.

The inferno didn’t spread to Breed’s Hill, but its effects were most definitely felt there. “A dense column of smoke rose to great height,” wrote an eyewitness, “and there being a gentle breeze from the south-west, it hung like a thunder cloud over the contending armies.”

Some 380 buildings went up in flame. Such destruction was without precedent: Although the British had torched some isolated homes at Lexington, this was the first occasion in which an entire village or town was deliberately set ablaze during the Revolutionary War. Unfortunately, the colonies hadn’t seen the last of these large-scale burnings.

7. BRITAIN SUFFERED A DISPROPORTIONATE NUMBER OF CASUALTIES.

Though the redcoats prevailed, their victory was a Pyrrhic one. Nearly half of the estimated 2400 British troops who fought at Bunker Hill were killed or wounded. How many men did the Americans lose? Four hundred and fifty—out of an overall force of 1200. The rebels may have been bested, but they’d also put on an impressive showing against some of the most feared and well-trained troops on Earth. Bunker Hill thus became a morale boost for the patriots—and a cause for concern back in England.

One day after the showdown, a British officer lamented “We have indeed learned one melancholy truth, which is that the Americans, if they were equally well commanded, are full as good soldiers as ours, and as it is are very little inferior to us, even in discipline and steadiness of countenance.”

8. PAUL REVERE LATER CONDUCTED SOME FORENSIC DENTISTRY AT THE BATTLEGROUND.

Fun fact: On top of being a silversmith and perhaps the most famous messenger in American history, Paul Revere was a part-time dentist. He learned the trade under an Englishman named John Baker in the 1760s. Revere’s mentor taught him the art of forging replacement teeth out of ivory and other materials, and the future rebel eventually established himself as an in-demand Boston dentist. One of his clients was Dr. Joseph Warren, the man who would dispatch Revere—and fellow rider William Dawes—to warn some Massachusetts statesmen that British troops were headed towards Lexington and Concord on a fateful, much-mythologized night in April 1775.

During the Battle of Bunker Hill, Warren, a Major General, decided to fight right on the front line with patriot volunteers despite his rank and was killed. When the battle was over, Warren's body was dumped into a shallow grave with another slain American..

When the British pulled out of the area in 1776, Warren’s kin finally had the chance to give him a dignified burial. But there was a big problem: Several months had elapsed and the corpses were now rotted to the point of being indistinguishable from each other.

Enter Revere. The silversmith joined a party of Warren’s family and friends in searching for the General’s remains. They knew they'd found the right body when Revere identified a dental prosthetic that he had made for Warren years earlier.

9. THE MARQUIS DE LAFAYETTE LAID DOWN THE CORNERSTONE OF THE BUNKER HILL MONUMENT.

The Bunker Hill Monument Association wanted to create a grand memorial honoring those who’d given their lives in the Revolution’s first major battle—and on June 17, 1825, 50 years after Putnam and Warren’s men squared off against the British, the monument’s cornerstone was laid at Breed’s Hill. Putting the rock into place was the visiting Marquis de Lafayette, a hero of the Revolution who was, as the musical Hamilton put it, “America’s favorite fighting Frenchman.” (For the record, though, he personally didn’t fight at the battle site he was commemorating that day.) Due to funding issues, this granite structure—a 221-foot obelisk—wasn’t finished until 1842. As for Lafayette, he was later buried in Paris beneath soil that had been taken from that most historic of battle sites, Bunker Hill.

10. “BUNKER HILL DAY” IS NOW A MAJOR HOLIDAY IN BOSTON.

In 1786, Bean Town began the tradition of throwing an annual parade in honor of the patriots who saw action on the Charlestown Peninsula. It takes place the Sunday on or before June 17—which itself is celebrated throughout Boston and its home county as “Bunker Hill Day.”

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