May Days past in Rochester

May 02, 1937

Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, May 02, 1937

Yesterday marked the 135th anniversary of May Day, or International Labor Day. Traditionally, May Day celebrates the international labor movement, in various iterations since 1884. Yesterday, parades and demonstrations were held in a range of cities from St. Petersburg to Seattle.

01 May 1895

Democrat and Chronicle, 01 May 1895

I wondered how, over the decades, Rochester saw May Day. In a non-exhaustive search of the Democrat and Chronicle, I found that Rochester looked at May Day much like other Great Lake cities.

May 02, 1901

May 02, 1901

The first May Day celebration was in 1895, while the last one I found was in 1946.  Basically, over time, the September national holiday, Labor Day, replaced May Day. Ultimately, Labor Day was considered more mainstream; May Day was often associated with left-wing and socialistic leanings.



The 1901 event drew extensive coverage. The Democrat and Chronicle was a relatively conservative, generally Republican newspaper not considered a strong champion of labor. Nonetheless, given that Rochester had a large, pro-labor German population, in the early years of May Day the newspaper offered more-or-less favorable coverage of celebrations and parades.

The ascendancy of the Soviet Union following World War One altered the D & C‘s reporting and editorializing. In 1919, violence occurred at several May Day events, including in Cleveland and Milwaukee, causing conservatives to cast the ceremonies as dangerous. During the 1920’s, the D & C took dimmer views of the celebrations, tinged with apprehension that labor might be sympathetic with the communistic Soviet Union.

(left and center) 1922; (right) 1925

(left and center) 1922; (right) 1925

The years of the Great Depression were the height of May Day celebrations. While the D & C remained a conservative newspaper, coverage of May Day and worker concerns expanded and the reporting tone was more favorable.


(left to right, top to bottom) 1929, 1930, 1933, 1934

May 02, 1935

May 02, 1935

With the advent of the Cold War, Rochester Labor celebrations almost entirely moved to the September holiday. Throughout the Cold War, May Day was perhaps the most important day in the Soviet Union with massive parades in Red Square and military spectacles. The American September holiday — not containing the world international — was considered more nationalist and non-socialistic.



During the Cold War, the D & C ‘s coverage of May Day was critical of “Reds” and focused on acts of dissent, such as that took place in Berlin in 1950.

May 02, 1971

May 02, 1971

This 1971 photo is typical of May Day coverage with unsmiling leaders imposing their wills upon the masses.

In 2012, the Occupy movement resurrected May Day activities. As described by the Socialist Worker, “In the streets for May Day,”(2012), members of Occupy Rochester, the Rochester Labor Council (AFL-CIO), local unions and many local activists came out for a daylong celebration of International Workers Day. More than 100 people participated throughout the day in two separate rallies, a three-hour block of workshops and an evening picnic.

SEE ALSO “What is the working class?” with Thomas Warfield at the Labor Day Parade.


Thomas Warfield, Labor Day 2016

Mourning for the dead and fighting for the living in Highland Park