Monday, September 02, 2019

Labor Day parades: When American horseshoers marched down city streets

Union horseshoers shod seven horses on wagon during Labor Day parade 1903

The first Labor Day parades in the United States featured marching horseshoers representing their local trade unions. It was a day of pride and fellowship on the city streets. But it was also a rare thing for a working horseshoer: a day off.

"At the Farrier" by Wouterus Verschuur
Labor Day was established by individual states as a day to honor the accomplishments and merits of organized labor in this country. Oregon was the first state to celebrate a Labor Day.

New York's first Labor Day was held in 1882 with a parade of 10,000 trade union workers around the appropriate location of Union Square, including representatives on the Manhattan ("city") and Brooklyn local chapters of the International Union of Journeyman Horseshoers (IUJH).

1903 Cincinnati Labor Day Parade Journeyman Horseshoers Union marchedThere were surely other horseshoer unions, but Labor Day is association with the national union for employee horseshoers, the International Union of Journeyman Horseshoers (IUJH), formed in 1872 and one of the oldest trade unions. After reaching into nearly every state and most major cities in the years after World War I, its influence waned as urban horses disappeared and shops closed. The sphere of influence moved to the country's racetracks, where it and other unions represented horseshoers.

The master horseshoers and owners of the city shops where the journeymen worked for wages, had their own association for negotiating. The Master Horseshoers' National Protective Association of America, established in 1893, addressed the common concerns of business owners involved in owning and regulating shoeing shops in American cities. They set the prices for what it cost for a horse to be shod, which affected city businesses. In turn, they set the wages, hours, and working conditions for the journeymen they employed.

In 1917, a union member journeyman horseshoer earned between $3.50 and $5 per day for nine hours' work; he worked six days a week, with only eight hours required on Saturdays during the winter, and a half day off on Saturday during the summer.

By that time, well after the introduction of the automobile for transportation, the nation had 8,000 masters employing 11,000 union-member journeymen in 400 US cities shoeing primarily "freight" and other work horses for city duties like snow plowing, trash collection and horsecar rail transport. That number does not include many, many more uncounted non-union horseshoers, especially in smaller towns and in the country.

The state of Texas had seven locals of the IUJH:  Dallas, Fort Worth, Waco, El Paso, Galveston, Denison and Wichita Falls, yet a big city like Houston had no union. New York had 20 locals. In the early 1900s, New York had so many union members in all fields that, had it been a country and not a state, only Great Britain and France would have had more citizens who were union members. Unions were so entrenched in Britain, particularly with coal miners, that membership (of all trade unions) peaked at eight million members in 1920.

From the very start of the Labor Day holiday in the US and Canada, horseshoer unions were involved in Labor Day parades, and the men proudly marched. Later, the union locals in some cities would add elaborate floats, outfits, and banners to attract attention, which they hoped would translate to support or sympathy in the event of a strike.

Union Square, New York site of first Labor Day parade, 1872
The first Labor Day Parade in New York City was held in the appropriately named Union Square on September 5, 1882. More than 10,000 union members representing working trades from all corners of the city marched. Photo: Frank Leslie's Illustrated News.
And strike they did. The work stoppages were frequent and often violent. In August 1864, the Civil War was in full swing, as was a horseshoers' strike in Manhattan (Local No. 1) that was so violent that a horseshoer who needed to work was not only called a scab; he was hammered in the head by the strikers and died.

Goodenough patented horseshoe
The Goodenough shoe design was
highly promoted in the US and
tested for adoption by the US Army.
When it was used by street rail horses
in New York City, horseshoers protested.
In February 1884, the horseshoers' union in Brooklyn (Local No. 7) went on strike rather than adapt to using the machine-made Goodenough shoe instead of their handmade shoes. If work horses couldn't be shod, business in the city couldn't go on and people couldn't get around the city on the horse-drawn rail cars.

When it came to labor union parades, not everything ran smoothly. While unions often supported each others' strikes, they might have disagreements in how "labor" approached political subjects like campaigning for working conditions or hours or child labor as issues became increasingly handled by state governments and, eventually, the federal government, instead of directly handled between union negotiators and employers.

They might have even more disagreements about how a parade would be staged and who would march in what order.

Huge anvil and hammer for Uncle Sam on Labor Day 1942 in Detroit, Michigan
In the 1942 Labor Day Parade in Detroit, Michigan, the United Auto Workers Union float featured Uncle Sam beating an anvil that was bigger than he was. Note the banner: "Workers for democracy". Photo by Arthur Siegal, provided by the Library of Congress.

In 1903, for instance, New York was expecting 32,000 union members to march in the parade but a disagreement between unions shrank the number. The union firemen and the union horseshoers refused to march; they did agree to head to Coney Island for a tug of war between the two unions instead. 

As the years went by and horseshoer unions disappeared from the inner cities, the symbolism of horseshoers and blacksmiths as noble workers did not, and you can still see plenty of anvils and hammers used to symbolize Labor Day.

Bell Brand Horseshoes were exhibited in Labor Day Parade in Canada in 1800s

Read more:

Happy Birthday to the history-making Journeyman Horseshoers Union

History: 1960s Racetrack Horseshoers Union Court Case May Have Inspired Propaganda Film

Lost Legend Found: Meet Man o' War's Horseshoer (Finally)

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