The Food History of Labour Day

9:30 AM 2 Comments

Eight Hour Day Banner, Melbourne, 1856

Labour Day is an important annual holiday in North America. Labour Day, which falls on the first Monday in September, signifies the end of summer and return to school, but its origins lie in the 19th century worker's rights movement. In North America, Labour Day can be traced back to a Canadian union strike parade in 1872. In Canada, unionization was considered a crime at the time, so when the parade prompted Prime Minister John A. Macdonald to promise to repeal the anti-union laws, a celebration followed and became an annual tradition. In Canada celebrations were held in the spring, but similar events in the United States led to an American holiday in September, so in 1894 Canadian Prime Minister John Thompson declared that Labour Day would officially be in September in Canada as well.

In other countries, Labour Day is celebrated on different days, often May 1st, which is International Worker's Day. In Australia Labour Day occurs in October, March, or May, depending on the province. New Zealand holds celebrations in October. In the Bahamas Labour Day is celebrated in June, while in Jamaica the date is set in May. Trinidad and Tobago officially celebration Labour Day in June.

Because Labour Day is considered the end of summer, it offers a last chance for summer activities, such as picnics, beach trips, and barbeques. Therefore traditional Labour Day food is often associated with these events. An advertisement from the August 17, 1969 Los Angeles Times names ham as the "perfect Labor Day dinner":

"For a perfect Labor Day dinner, Fabulous Spiral Sliced Honey Baked Ham (so good it will Haunt you til it's Great!)...because we planned it that way. By using only fresh hams from Iowa's corn-fed porkers--our slow dry curing method, real Wisconsin hickory and applewood smoking, 30-hour oven baking, honey 'n spice glazed. So delicious and appetizing we just wouldn't know how to improve this product we've been making for the past 34 years. Spiral sliced too, from top to bottom for easy removal of slices, yet retains 'whole ham' appearance for serving. Every slice the same delectable thickness. Completely baked and ready to serve. Order you Honey Baked Ham today. An adventure in hamjoyment you'll never forget. Three sizes: aprx. 11 lbs, $16.50; aprx. 12 lbs, $18.00; aprx 13 lbs, $19.50." 

Another meat product associated with Labour Day is the hot dog, according to Nate Rawlings:

"Americans eat a lot of hot dogs. According to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, during "hot dog season," which runs from Memorial Day to Labor Day, Americans consume roughly 7 billion hot dogs, or about 818 hot dogs every second...There're several amazing things here. First, the fact that Americans consume such an incredible amount of hot dogs. Second, that there is a hot-dog season. And finally, that there is a National Hot Dog and Sausage Council."
A Labour Day parade in Toronto, Canada, 1900

On September 2, 1954, the Edmonton Journal, Ottawa Citizen, The Leader-Post, and the Vancouver Sun all included recipes for a "Labour Day Backyard Barbecue," featuring hamburgers and homemade doughnuts. Below the column was a recipe for peach cobbler, which was unrelated but still seems like an appropriate seasonal recipe.

Another newspaper advertisement from the September 1, 1950 Greensburg Daily names ham, weiners, chuck roast, bacon, pork loin roast, cheese, potato chips, pretzels, and a variety of other foods to meet "all your needs for the Labor Day Weekend."

Lastly, I'd like to highlight a very early source, published in The Bakersfield Californian in 1907. This article shows that by the early 1900s, barbecues had already become a standard Labour Day activity. Other celebrations included horse racing, a parade, speeches, "novelty events", music, and dancing. And of course, the specifics about the barbecue:

"At noon time a great barbecue will be served at the park, this, like everything else in the day's entertainment, being free to holders of the entrance ticket, in the form of a tag. Joe Yancey and Joe Mackey have this most important feature of the day's entertainment in charge, and promise that the hungry public shall be fed bountifully. Beef will be roasted in the good old Spanish style, and there will be plenty of other eatables in sight."
So, with that, if you're celebrating Labour Day today, enjoy the day off and plenty of "eatables!"

Anje graduated with a Honours Bachelors degree in History with a minor in Museum Studies. She currently lives and works in Japan's least populous prefecture as an assistant English teacher.