A Brief History of Labor Day Barbecues

From Union Parades to Backyard Grills

By Robert F. Moss

Carving the meats at the free Labor Day barbecue, Ridgway, Colorado, 1940
Carving the meats at the free Labor Day barbecue, Ridgway, Colorado, 1940 (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Will barbecue be part of your Labor Day this year? For many Americans it will. In fact, barbecue and Labor Day have a long association, going back to the earliest years of celebrating the holiday.

As one might guess from the name, Labor Day has its origins in the American labor movement. Around 1880, unions and other labor organizations staged the first celebrations and gatherings, and by the end of the decade they had convinced dozens of cities and states across the country to make Labor Day an official holiday. Factories, mills, and other unionized companies closed for the day and gave their workers a day of rest and relaxation.

Staging a big outdoor barbecue was one of the standard forms of civic celebration in the late 19th century, so it’s little surprise that some of the earliest Labor Day events features barbecue. The first instance I could find of a Labor Day barbecue took place in a rather unexpected location: New York City.

On Monday, September 3, 1888, the Volunteers Firemen’s Associations held their annual picnic and barbecue at Brommer’s Union Park at the southern tip of the Bronx. A 1,200 pound ox was roasted for the occasion, though we should note that this was an annual event that the firemen decided to move to Labor Day to take advantage of the new holiday.

In 1890, the second year that Kansas City celebrated Labor Day as a municipal holiday, the city’s workers celebrated with an 8,000-person parade followed by a speech by former Senator Charles Van Wyck and “a barbecue and daylight fireworks.” 200 miles in Nebraska, ten thousand citizens of Omaha celebrated their state’s second official Labor Day by watching a parade and then repairing to fairgrounds, where a 1,050 pound roasted ox awaited.

Labor Day was made a Federal holiday in 1894, and the workers of Chattanooga, Tennessee, celebrated with a big barbecue, too. “The great wheels of industry were still yesterday,” the Chattanooga Daily Times reported, “and the mills were idle, for labor had a day of rest and rejoicing.”

3,000 people lined Market Street to watch a parade of floats constructed by members of the city’s various labor unions along with police officers, politicians, military companies, and girls in carriages. The crowd then made their way to Electric Park on the eastern edge of the city (now the site of McCallie School), where the mayor, governor, and other dignitaries delivered addresses before everyone sat down to a giant barbecue. The menu included “twenty beeves, thirty sheep, ten shoats and fifteen goats” along with “coffee, Kentucky ‘bergoo’ and fresh bakery bread.”

By the first decade of the 20th century, gigantic Labor Day barbecues could be found in almost any city with a large population of industrial workers. In the early days, these celebrations were closely tied to unionism, and they usually involved massive parades with music, pro-labor banners, and lots of American flags and other patriotic symbols, too.

During the conservative 1920s, the celebrations were gradually stripped of their more radical trappings, and marches were replaced by more general gatherings, festivals, and speeches. In 1926, the Raleigh, North Carolina, News and Observer reported on the plans of the Raleigh Central Union for a big Labor Day barbecue at Pullen Park. “We decided not to have a parade,” Edgar J. Wicker of the Typographical Union told the paper. “In the first place, there’s hardly time for that and then those sorts of things seemed to have gone out of style.”

The barbecue portion remained in style for quite a while.

The pits at the free Labor Day barbecue, Ridgway, Colorado, 1940
The pits at the free Labor Day barbecue, Ridgway, Colorado, 1940 (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Over time, Labor Day evolved into a more general public holiday dedicated to leisure activities. In the South, of course, leisure time meant picnics and outings, and barbecue cooks took advantage of the opportunity to earn a little money.

E. B. Lever sold barbecue every Labor Day in Columbia, South Carolina, in the 1920s
E. B. Lever sold barbecue every Labor Day in Columbia, South Carolina, in the 1920s

In Columbia, South Carolina, a half dozen barbecue stands advertised smoked meats in newspaper ads each Labor Day during the 1920s and 1930s. As E. B. Lever's advertisement above shows, the meat was often sold by the bucketful, with the customers bringing their own buckets to the barbecue stand to be filled. Rival pitmaster S. E. Perry sold his "Bucket Barbecue" for 60 cents a pound and hash at 30 cents. Some of these holiday barbecue stands evolved into permanent barbecue restaurants.

During the 1950s, the AFL and CIO still hosted massive barbecues on Labor Day. In 1955, the organization’s Labor Day rally at Denison Dam drew union members from all across Texas, capped by a keynote address by Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Sam Rayburn. By this point, however, the Labor Day barbecue had lost most of its connotations of unionism and was treated by most Americans as a long weekend of relaxation. In the process, the barbecue gradually shifted from the outdoor pit to the backyard grill variety.

In 1956, the Dallas Morning News reported that members of the city’s country clubs were "preparing for a gala and final summer fling over Labor Day weekend,” with events including dances, swim meets, and barbecues. Newspapers and magazines in the 1950s and 1960s were filled with advertisements for charcoal, grills, and meat for Labor Day barbecues, and cooking out in the backyard has been an inseparable part of the Labor Day holiday ever since.

So, whether you're digging a pit to roast a whole hog or are picking up a takeout tray from a local barbecue joint or just grilling some burgers out on the back patio this holiday weekend, you're taking part in a long and storied American tradition.

About the Author

Robert F. Moss

Robert F. Moss is the Contributing Barbecue Editor for Southern Living magazine, Restaurant Critic for the Post & Courier, and the author of numerous books on Southern food and drink, including The Lost Southern Chefs, Barbecue: The History of an American Institution, Southern Spirits: 400 Years of Drinking in the American South, and Barbecue Lovers: The Carolinas. He lives in Charleston, South Carolina.