Spreading the Light in New York, 1880-82

Sunday, January 4, 2015
2nd Floor Promenade (New York Hilton)
Robert Allen, Auckland University of Technology

In the early 1880s the Spread the Light Hall at 365 Fulton Street in Brooklyn provided a base for some of New York’s most active agitators and radicals. Here, the Spread the Light Club heard lectures from well-known radicals such as Henry George, John Swinton and Dr Adolf Douai, on topics including land reform, cooperation, socialism, and boycotting.

Although the ‘spread the light’ movement had emerged from recent agitation in support of the Irish Land League, many of the major participants were primarily involved in the Knights of Labor, and were prominent in the emerging battle between its leader Terence Powderly and dissident local assemblies. However, they were also seeking to develop, individually and collectively, trade union organisations; to establish a party for labor; to promote various radical causes such as ‘No-Rent’; all under the banners of Agitate, Educate, Organise and Spread the Light.

The Hall therefore became the base for various organisations with which club members were involved: the notorious Local Assembly 1562 of the Knights and its pseudonymous public face, the Advance Labor Club; the waning Greenback Labor party and its temporary ally the Socialistic Labor party; the Irish Ladies Land League; and the Central Labor Union.

In early 1882, Matthew Maguire and Theodore Cuno, the two most prominent leaders of the club, along with Robert Blissert, a close ally from New York City, established the Central Labor Union as a means by which labor could have a unified and a political voice. It expanded rapidly and was soon able to promote a party for labor in forthcoming elections. On September 5th1882, it held a Monster Festival, Parade and Picnic in Manhattan. This has subsequently been considered to be the original Labor Day.

Over the last century, a dispute has ensued as to whether Peter McGuire or Matthew Maguire was the ‘father’ of Labor Day, with the 21stcentury inclined to put Maguire in that position. The debate also traditionally seeks to determine the extent to which the Knights of Labor was involved.

The poster provides an alternative view by looking at the informal network of radicals who occupied the hall on Fulton Street; the various organisations they established and ran; and the interconnections between, and intertwining of, both the individuals and the organizations. Rather than seeing any specific organisations or individuals as central to the radical cause or to the origin of Labor Day, it looks at the way in which this informal, interconnected and overlapping extended network sought to leverage organisations, events, actions and publicity to Agitate, Educate, and Organise. It concludes that the 1882 festival emerged from a conversation at 365 Fulton Street within the network as part of its ongoing attempts, through the various organizations involved, to promote and sustain socialistic, labor and anti-monopolistic causes.

The traditional poster will be supported by an interactive laptop presentation and blog.

See more of: Poster Session #1
See more of: AHA Sessions