Since the year 1790, New York City has been the largest city in the United States. Given the population density of the city, the vast majority of the people there rent apartments.
Now imagine if everyone in New York who switched apartments had to do so on the exact same day every year.
Well, this was the reality in New York for over two centuries.
Learn more about moving day in New York City on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
This episode is sponsored by Audible.com.
My audiobook recommendation today is Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace.
In Gotham, Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace have produced a monumental work of history, one that ranges from the Indian tribes that settled in and around the island of Manna-hata, to the consolidation of the five boroughs into Greater New York in 1898. It is an epic narrative, a story as vast and as varied as the city it chronicles, and it underscores that the history of New York is the story of the United States.
You can get a free one month trial to Audible and 2 free audiobooks by going to audibletrial.com/EverythingEverywhere or clicking on the link in the show notes.
Almost since the founding of the city, New York used to have a very odd tradition.
At 9 am, on May 1st, all of the leases in the city would expire at the exact same time.
The origins of this tradition, like so many traditions, are shrouded in mystery. Some people think it was due to the English celebration of May Day.
Others tie the date to the anniversary of the original Dutch voyage to the island of Manhattan. Supposedly moving was supposed to react or honor the original Dutch settlers.
A letter from the mid-18th century indicates that it was an old tradition even then. It noted, “All the houses here are hired according to an old custom from the 1st of May.”
If it was an old custom in the mid-18th century, then it probably went back to the 17th century at least.
Regardless of how the tradition started, by the time May 1 rolled around you could be pretty sure that spring would be in full effect. The weather would be reasonably warm and it would be possible to move.
The day which moving day was tied to was Rent Day which was on February 1. This was the day that landlords were to notify their tenants of the price of rent for the upcoming year. This gave their tenants a full three months to decide if they wanted to move or not.
This tradition became codified in New York State law when they passed legislation in 1820 which mandated that unless specified otherwise, all property leases would end on May 1.
Needless to say, every May 1st in New York City was total pandemonium.
While every person didn’t move, everyone who did move was doing on at the exact same time on the exact same day.
All of the wagons and carts in the city were employed. Prices for the day would skyrocket. Farmers from outside of New York would often come into town just so they could make extra money. It wasn’t uncommon for people to pay an entire week’s salary just to have their things moved.
There are many testimonies to the chaos of moving day.
Famous American frontier explorer Davey Crocket was in New York on moving day in 1834. He noted, By the time we returned down Broadway, it seemed to me that the city was flying before some awful calamity. “Why,” said I, “Colonel, what under heaven is the matter? Everyone appears to be pitching out their furniture, and packing it off.” He laughed, and said this was the general “moving day.” Such a sight nobody ever saw unless it was in this same city. It seemed a kind of frolic, as if they were changing houses just for fun. Every street was crowded with carts, drays, and people. So the world goes. It would take a good deal to get me out of my log-house; but here, I understand, many persons “move” every year.”
Frances Trollope noted, “On the 1st of May the city of New York has the appearance of sending off a population flying from the plague, or of a town which had surrendered on condition of carrying away all their goods and chattels. Rich furniture and ragged furniture, carts, wagons, and drays, ropes, canvas, and straw, packers, porters, and draymen, white, yellow, and black, occupy the streets from east to west, from north to south, on this day. Every one I spoke to on the subject complained of this custom as most annoying, but all assured me it was unavoidable, if you inhabit a rented house. More than one of my New York friends have built or bought houses solely to avoid this annual inconvenience.”
Many of the cartmen who transported furniture would take the goods to the local police station if they didn’t get paid, and the owners would have to pay an extra amount to get their furniture released.
Cartmen would also get extra attention and respect in the weeks leading up to moving day, because people wanted to reserve their carts ahead of time.
Children would often have the day off of school because there was so much activity, and it all had to happen on that day.
The streets at the time were not paved. They were often just dirt and mud, so getting your furnishings to your new apartment unscathed was often a crapshoot.
The New York Times noted, “Everybody in a hurry, smashing mirrors in his haste, and carefully guarding boot boxes from harm. Sofas that go out sound will go in maimed . . . bedscrews will be lost in the confusion, and many a good piece of furniture badly bruised in consequence.”
Even as late as 1919, the Times noted that the concern of most people was “how much of the furniture would reach its destination as furniture and how much as firewood.”
By the mid-19th century, people began to wise up and started moving a few days before or after May 1st, turning moving day into moving week.
However, May 1st remained the primary day for leases to expire well into the early 20th century.
As the city grew and expanded, the number of people moving on moving day grew with it. At its peak, it is estimated that as many as 1,000,000 may have moved residences in New York on the same day.
The pain and expense of having to move on moving day were beneficial to landlords. In addition to whatever the cost of rent was, tenets would have to factor in the time, cost, and breakage of the possessions when determining if they should accept a higher rent. It might be worth it to pay more if it meant avoiding the hassle of moving on moving day.
As the 20th century progressed, more people began leaving the city for the summer, and they negotiated leases that expired on October 1, which created a new moving day in the fall.
Resistance to moving day grew in the 1920s and 1930s. Moving companies realized they could make more money if the dates people moved were more spread out. They couldn’t handle everything on one day, but they could handle it spread out over a year.
The final nail in the coffin for moving day was World War II. There simply weren’t enough men available to move everyone on one day, so the tradition was eventually put to rest.
With the establishment of rent controls during and after the war, the need to constantly move so much also lessened.
The death of the moving day tradition was definitely a good thing. However, there is a part of me that would love to witness a million people in New York simultaneously moving on the same day today.