If you have mixed feelings about the Labor Day weekend, you're not alone. For two completely unrelated reasons, I really wish Washington didn't celebrate this occasion.
Before the 1890s, when Labor Day became a national holiday, summer didn't come to an end until the weather actually changed -- mid-October or even November. But over the years, Labor Day has put an end to long summers: Swimming pools now close after the first Monday in September, as do so many other warm-weather institutions.
As the son of immigrant parents who preached that work was preferable to leisure, I get fidgety on non-productive weekends; long ones compound my uneasiness. I fret about not working on Labor Day.
The idea for the holiday began when blue-collar workers in the 1880s complained about the lack of a break between July 4 and Thanksgiving. At that time, industrial laborers often put in 10-hour days (some even longer), six days a week. But Washington wasn't a blue-collar town. Government employees led the good life at their jobs, as attested by an 1883 letter written by Virginia Grigsby, who worked in the Dead Letter Branch of the Post Office:
"We are fixed with every convenience: long desks, easy revolving chairs, footstools, plenty of servants and no specific amount of work to be done . . . There are all ladies in this room, and therefore they do as they choose; most of them bring dressing sacques and put them on to work in. Some even take off their corsets. You know Mama never wears any at home; perhaps she may be able to do all this in the Land Office."
The typical workday of a government employee in Washington prior to the first Labor Day was nice and easy: 9 to 4, with time off for lunch. Although the work week was six days, vacations were usually an entire month. Thus, Washington, with all that free time on hand, gained a reputation as a swinging town, leading one observer to call it one of the "wickedest cities of its size in the country." Classified ads bore testimony that an idle weekend was the devil's workshop:
WANTED -- A PLEASANT FURNISHED ROOM . . . to be used occasionally, where no questions will be asked . . . WANTED -- A FURNISHED ROOM in a quiet family, for gentleman and lady; board for lady only; no questions . . .
Of course there were many more examples of contemporary Washingtonians pursuing more proper activities on a late summer weekend. On Saturday afternoons, crowds gathered on the White House lawn to hear the Marine Band's free concert. To the accompaniment of the music, people promenaded with the mixed anticipation that one might "run against a Treasury clerk or a Cabinet officer . . . or the chief lady of a foreign legation."
From the White House, you might venture -- at least by the mid-'80s -- to the Washington Monument, perhaps by bicycle. There were both male and female tricyclists, including Belva Ann Lockwood, the first woman admitted to practice before the Supreme Court. Ms. Lockwood, who was the National Equal Rights candidate for President of the United States in 1884 and 1888, pedaled down Pennsylvania Avenue in red stockings at a pace of 10 miles an hour. Male wheelers, on the other hand, made sport of riding down the steps of the Capitol's West Front.
Croquet was a popular pastime in pre-Labor Day Washington. It was also inexpensive: As late as 1897, Sears Roebuck sold a four-ball set for 65 cents. Swimming in the Potomac became more enticing when a public beach was constructed in 1891. And boat races drew large crowds well into the autumn.
Then there were activities that fell somewhere between improper and above reproach. Outdoor auctions in the late summer attracted onlookers in the city as well as in Georgetown and Alexandria. They featured furniture and old books, some of dubious "colonial" or "rare" status. Shops along Washington's streets attracted buyers with outside displays of products, some of definitely questionable utility. One of the best-selling in the '80s was a nose- improver. Consisting of a two-part metal shell connected by a hinge, the device could be affixed to the nose to produce whatever shape the user had in mind. It was worn only at night and the manufacturer claimed it would bring results in a mere eight weeks. "The inventor boasts," reads one contemporary account, "that it will keep its shape until its owner grows tired of it, when he may buy an improver with a different mold, and appear with another equally beautiful new nose."
To be sure, there were some Washington residents in the 1880s who really worried about the deleterious effects of all this leisure and about its proposed increase with the addition of a Labor Day. One was future president James A. Garfield: "We may divide the whole struggle of the human race into two chapters: first, the fight to get leisure; and then the second fight of civilization -- what shall we do with our leisure when we get it?"
Congress, which has hardly cornered the market on hard work, didn't worry about such fine points. It passed the bill establishing Labor Day without much labor.
The vote was unanimous.