Labor Day, Labor History

Magnolia Avenue, 8 1/2 foot connection with 11 foot at Glenwood Avenue and Thorndale Avenue looking upstream, August 11, 1933.
Source: Special Collections. Chicago Sewers Collection, SPE-CSC 1.326

Broadway Street, 9 foot sewer in Rokeby Street [now Fremont Street], part of Broadway Sewer System. Driving steel sheeting, above ground, above ground, August 24, 1927.
Source: Special Collections. Chicago Sewers Collection, SPE-CSC 1.168
Well, it's here: Labor Day. The end of summer, when swimming pools close and schools open. But in all this back-to-school hullabaloo, it's easy to forget the origins of the holiday. Labor Day was first instituted at the city and state levels as early as 1885. Federal recognition came in 1894, and the first Monday of September was designated a day to honor workers everywhere.

CPL's archival collections can help you remember those workers who helped build Chicago. We have collections directly related to the Labor Movement, such as the American Federation of Musicians, Chicago Chapter Files, many collections in Woodson Regional's Harsh Collection and the small Milk Dealers' Association Ledger and Minute Book, which discusses their grass-roots labor organizing.

But it's a collection that isn't as obviously related that I want to highlight. The Chicago Sewers Collection contains records dating back to 1855 that describe the history of the city's sewer system. The site of Chicago was a swampy, muddy mess, and only through a series of engineering feats was it made habitable and sanitary for people.

Some of that is covered here, but the real gems in this collection are nearly a thousand photographic images, some of which you can view online in the Chicago's Sewers Digital Collection. The striking photographs show the construction of the city's sewers, including the men (and let's face it, they were all men) who built them.

Bryn Mawr Avenue, bricklayers, north heading, July 9, 1930.
Source: Special Collections. Chicago Sewers Collection, SPE-CSC 1.178

These images give you a strong sense of what the working conditions were like for the average laborer throughout the last century. This Labor Day, I will remember these men who did hard, dangerous work so that we could have clean drinking water and efficient waste removal. How will you celebrate Labor Day?