The holiday from the beginning had several purposes: honoring the achievements of ordinary workers - which sometimes takes the form of union marches and other activities - and giving workers a day off between Independence Day and Thanksgiving.
That's right: a chance to relax and spend time with their families, in a time when few would ever have the privilege of, or even expect, a five day, 40-hour workweek.
Today, the day off is still very much appreciated and Americans this weekend are believed to be traveling in greater numbers than in at least the past seven years.
The American Automobile Association estimated that this holiday weekend would see some 33.4 million Americans on trips over 50 miles.
"Travel definitely has picked up," said Jennifer Busey, manager of Franklin Travel in Champaign, Ill. "The stock market goes up, people have a little more money, and they take a trip. It all goes together."
Nearly 28 million of those traveling are driving, and about 3.5 million are flying. The air travel number is down from last year.
"The economy, the hassle factor with security - many travelers are feeling the extra amount of time that is needed in the airports, and it just makes it easier on some of your shorter flights to drive," Air Transport Association spokeswoman Diana Cronan.
Many of those drivers encountered a nasty surprise: record high gas prices in many areas of the country that averaged nearly $1.75 per gallon, up 15 cents in the last two weeks.
Caught in the act of pumping gasoline, highway-bound holiday motorists in the Spokane area told CBS News Correspondent Stephan Kaufman they are willing to pay the price of recreation.
"You pay it and then you just forget it and move on," a woman said as she filled the 40-gallon tank of her Chevy Suburban.
"I already got the tickets for the Mariners," said a male customer. "I might as well go and still go see the game, since I spent $400."
"A vacation comes and you've planned all that time, why stop for an extra $10 or $15?" said another — but he was planning to stay home for the weekend.
Motorists in the Phoenix area were particularly hard hit by the spike in gasoline prices, after a pipeline from Texas that carries a third of Phoenix's gas supply was shut down on Aug. 8 because of safety concerns. That caused supply problems that came to a head Aug. 17 as stations throughout the city ran dry. Gasoline there is now averaging $2.12 a gallon, almost a record.
"Last month, I would've said $2.25 (a gallon) was too high, it's funny what you get accustomed to," said Mesa resident Stacy Reading. "This weekend, we value spending more time with family than saving a few dollars."
"You gotta go, you gotta bite the bullet," Steve Henderson of Chicago told Bernie Tafoya of CBS radio station WBBM-AM.
"Now that the gas is getting back to normal levels, people are not putting off any road trips they were planning, nor should they," said Kim Pappas-Miller, a spokeswoman for AAA Arizona. "Things are much better. Take your road trips and enjoy it."
In fact, that's just what many people have been doing this summer.
From July 19 to Aug. 15, Americans used 9.4 million barrels of gasoline per day, the highest four-week period on record, said Doug MacIntyre, an analyst for the federal Energy Information Administration.
"If gasoline demand is up, that would lead to the conclusion that either there's more cars or they're being driven more," he said. "The assumption is that maybe due to some of the poor weather people put off their vacations until the end of summer."
Instead of taking two or three cars for their annual trip to a northern Michigan vacation home, the Van Horne family of Detroit all piled into a single pick-up truck, reports Ron Dewey of CBS Radio station WWJ-AM.
Many Americans are staying close to home this summer, often because they're unwilling to put up with the hassles of flying. And despite high gasoline prices, there are some bargains in vacations to which you drive. Hotel occupancy this year is up over last year, while prices have remained flat.
Tourists around the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia earlier this week said prices influenced their travel decision.
"The discounts," said Sherry Sherman, when asked why she, her two kids and husband chose to travel from New York City. The family bought discounted Amtrak tickets and got a free night at a hotel. "The whole package was very good," she said.
In California, where beaches and forests are a big draw on the final summer weekend of the season, there were warnings of sharks and bears, and beach closures. A woman swimming with seals was attacked by a 15- to 18-foot shark on August 19th while swimming 75 yards offshore of the Central Coast.
Up to 100,000 people were gathering in northeastern Oklahoma this weekend to celebrate the Cherokee National Holiday, commemorating the 1839 signing of the tribe's constitution following the arrival of tribal members in Oklahoma after marching across the Trail of Tears.