"Moving Day": How 1 million New Yorkers used to move house on the same day every year

A cartoon depicting New York's Moving Day. Image: H.P. Finn from the Comic Annual of 1831/public domain.

Think back to the last time you moved house: the panicking that you’ve left something behind, the cost, the sheer effort of it all. Now imagine that you had to do it at the same time as a million other people nearby. Because that’s what happened – and still happens, to an extent – in New York. It’s called “Moving day”, and from what we can tell sounds noisy, absurdly inconvenient and, also, like a bit of a laugh.

Though many cities had moving days, New York’s is probably the best example just for sheer scale. Up until World War II, almost all leases in the city would expire simultaneously on 1 May. That sounds just such a bad idea that you think it can’t possibly have happened, but sure enough, total mayhem would ensue every year as everyone moved at the same time.

Contemporary descriptions do a good job of capturing the chaos. English writer Francis Trollope described the scene in 1832 as resembling “a population flying from the plague”. New York lawyer George Templeton Strong wrote of the day in his diary: “Every other house seems to be disgorging itself into the street; all the sidewalks are lumbered with bureaus and bedsteads.”

Frontiersman Davey Crockett discovered the practice by accident in 1834: “By the time we returned down Broadway it seemed to me that the city was flying before some awful calamity.”

So, how did this bizarre practice get started? The Encyclopaedia of New York City claims the 1 May date was chosen to link with the English celebration of May Day. Others are more specific, and claim it’s a hangover from a kind of fair, in which English servants would attend to find new employers. Others still some argue that the date was chosen to commemorate Dutch colonizers setting out for Manhattan on 1 May.


We can be fairly sure that it started in New York’s colonial period in the 18th century: John Pintard, a founder of the New York Historical Society, wrote to his daughter Eliza that the city’s “practice of all moving on one day… is of an ancient custom and when the city was small and inhabitants few.”

It wasn’t long until it went up a notch. A law was passed in 1820 mandated that “every lease shall be deemed and held valid until the first day of May”. It was repealed eight years later, but the practice stuck as the city grew.

By the early 20th century a million people would take to the streets on 1 May. Yep: a million.

With the huge scale, things started to change. One New York Times reporter wrote in 1905 that it was now an organized affair. The movers’ carts were fancier, and New Yorkers had seen the last of “the rickety, green-painted express wagon with a semi-detached tin sign”. That said, a 1919 a piece in the New York Times still questioned “how much of the furniture would reach its destination as furniture and how much as firewood.”

The sheer scale of moving day was brilliant for the men operating the carts, who were in such demand that many renters were forced to pay over a week’s wages to hire them. Demand was so high that, as one letter in the New York Times in 1759 explained, “All the farmers from Nassau Island and the Jerseys come over and let out their wagons.”

So, then, what happened? We don’t hear about millions of New Yorkers all moving together these days; what gave?

In the end it took a world war to put an end to this baffling practice. Most able-bodied men went off to fight, and that meant very few cartmen were around. Moving was, as you’d expect, much more difficult.

More significantly, though, many would-be house builders had gone to fight in the war and there was a housing crisis: in 1919 only 22,000 of the city’s one million apartments were vacant, in contrast to 53,000 three years before. (Here’s something scary, though: 2.2 per cent of its homes were vacant in 1919, whilst only 2% of London’s are today. Our crisis is worse. We really are completely screwed.)

With so few vacant apartments, New York’s renters began to worry that they may well not find anywhere better than what they already had – no matter how high their rents got – and so opted to stay put. According to Robert M. Fogelson’s book “The Great Rent Wars”, in 1919 a woman from the Bronx told a court clerk, whilst five children were tugging at her apron, that her rent had been raised six times in two years. Yet “I have been to more than two hundred places in a week, and everywhere I looked I found some one had beat me to it.”

"Can't you take a few things more?" A cartoon from Harper's Weekly, 1869. Image: public domain.

The New York Tribune ran a piece in the same year which said that, “Many of the thousands who moved yesterday found the apartments they had engaged and hoped to occupy had not been vacated”. People with nowhere to go, understandably, refused to budge. Renters even doubted whether new apartments would actually be empty when they arrived.

A combination of these things meant that by 1945 a headline in the New York Times ran “Housing Shortage Erases Moving Day”. And that was it: New York’s millions had begun to move year-round.  

Amazingly, New York was far from unique in all of this. In Quebec a moving day was passed into law in the mid 18th century. Landowners had been hiring people to work their land and then sending them on their way just as winter approached. This was seen for as pretty unfair – which it was – and a law was introduced which made them provide accommodation over winter. This law eventually evolved to include urban leases, and stated that they must end on 30 April and begin on 1 May. (The date was later pushed back to July 1st, so more children could complete a full year at the same school.)

Chicago got in on the act too: during the late nineteenth century, a third of its households would move at once, until in 1911 the law changed and renters could move year-round. Nonetheless, 1 May remains a popular moving day there. And in Quebec, 115,000 city residents move in Montreal around July 1st each year.

If this is the first you’ve heard of moving day, then you might be wondering how on earth a practice that inconvenient lasted for that long without everyone realizing it was a bad idea. That said, doesn’t a part of you think it sounds like a laugh? In 1825, the New York Mirror wrote, “The spirits of anarchy and confusion might have roamed with delight through our streets on the first of May.” Admit it, you’re curious.

Sometimes I almost think a moving day might do London some good – might cheer us all up.

Then I remember how grumpy everyone was during the tube strike last week.

 
 
 
 

What are Europe’s longest train journeys?

The Orient Express was a pretty long train. Image: Getty.

For reasons that aren’t clear even to me, a question popped into my head and refused to leave: what’s longer? Britain’s longest train joruney, or Germany’s?

On the one hand, Germany is quite a bit larger – its area is 70 per cent more than Great Britain’s. On the other hand, Great Britain is long, skinny island and Germany is much rounder – the distance from John O’ Groats to Lands End is over 1,400 km, but you never have walk over 1,000 km to cross Germany in any direction.

And it turns out these factors balance almost each other out. Britain’s longest train, the CrossCountry from Aberdeen in Scotland to Penzance in Cornwall, runs 785 miles or 1,263 km. Germany’s longest train, the IC 2216 from Offenburg in the Black Forest to Greifswald on the Baltic coast, is exactly 1,300 km. Germany wins by a tiny distance.

Except then I was hooked. What about the longest train in France? Spain? Italy?

So I did what anyone would do. I made a map.

The map above was all drawn with the Deutsche Bahn (Germany Railways) travel planning tool, which rather incredibly has nearly every railway in Europe. The data quality is better for some countries than others (the lines in France aren’t quite that straight in real life), and the measurements may be a bit off – it’s not always easy to find the length of a train service, especially when routes can vary over the year – but it gives us a good idea of what the routes look like.

Let’s start with the UK. The Aberdeen to Penzance route isn’t really for people who want to go all the way across the country. Instead, it’s a way to link together several railway lines and connect some medium-to-large cities that otherwise don’t have many direct services. “Cross-country” trains like these have existed for a century, but because they crossed multiple different company’s lines – and later, multiple British Rail regions – they tended to get ignored.

 

That’s why, when it privatised the railways, the government created a specific CrossCountry franchise so there was a company dedicated to these underused routes. If you want to get from Edinburgh to Leeds or Derby to Bristol, you’ll probably want a CrossCountry train.

The usual route is Edinburgh to Plymouth, but once a day they run an extra long one. Just one way though – there’s no Penzance to Aberdeen train. 

The longest train in Germany is weird – at 1,400 km, it’s substantially longer than the country itself. On the map, the reason is obvious – it takes a huge C shaped route. (It also doubles back on itself at one point in order to reach Stuttgart).

This route takes it down the Rhine, the biggest river in west Germany, and through the most densely populated patch of the country around Cologne and Dusseldorf known as the Ruhr. Germany’s second and third longest trains also have quite similar routes – they start and end in remote corners of the country, but all three have the Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan area in the middle.

You’re not meant to take the IC 2216 all the way from north east to south west – there are much more direct options available. Instead, it’s for people who want to travel to these major cities. They could run two separate trains – say, Offenburg-Dusseldorf and Griefswald-Cologne – but making it a single route means passengers benefit from a bit more flexibility and helps DB use its rolling stock more effectively.

France’s longest train exists for a very good reason. Most of France’s high-speed lines radiate out from Paris, and it’s very hard to get around the country without going to the capital. Usually to get from Marseille on the Mediterranean to Nantes near the Atlantic, you’d need to take a TGV to Paris Gare de Lyon station, then get the Métro across the city to Gare Montparnasse.

Once a day though, this TGV avoids this faff by stopping in the suburb of Juvisy and turning around without going into the centre. This lets passengers travel direct between the coasts and reduces the traffic through Paris’s terminals in the rush hour. The exact length of this route isn’t clear, but Wikipedia says it’s about 1,130 km.

Spain’s longest train is very different. This is the Trenhotel sleeper service from Barcelona to Vigo, and it’s pretty fancy. This is a train for tourists and business travellers, with some quite luxurious sleeping cabins. But it is a regularly scheduled train run by the state operator Renfe, not a luxury charter, and it does appear in the timetables.

Being dry, hot and quite mountainous in its middle, most of Spain’s cities are on its coast (Madrid is the one major exception) and as a result the train passes through relatively few urban areas. (Zaragoza, Spain’s 5th largest city, is on the route, but after that the next biggest city is Burgos, its 35th largest,) This is partly why overnight trains work so well on the route – without many stops in the middle, most passengers can just sleep right through the journey, although there are occasional day time trains on that route too if you want to savour the view on that 1,314 km journey.

Finally, there’s Italy. This is another sleeper train, from Milan in the north to Syracuse on the island of Sicily. It goes via Rome and travels along the west coast of... wait, it’s a train to the island of Sicily? How, when there’s no bridge?

Well, this train takes a boat. I don’t really have anything else to add here. It’s just a train that they literally drive onto a ferry, sail across the water, and then drive off again at the other side. That’s pretty cool.

(As I was writing this, someone on Twitter got in touch to tell me the route will get even longer in September when the line to Palermo reopens. That should be exciting.)

So those are the longest trains in each country. But they aren’t the longest in Europe.

For one thing, there are some countries we haven’t looked at yet with very long trains. Sweden has some spectacular routes from its southern tip up into the Arctic north, and although the Donbass War appears to have cut Ukraine’s Uzhorod to Luhansk service short, even Uzhorod to Kharkiv is over 1,400 km. And then there are the international routes.

To encourage the Russian rich to take the train for their holiday, Russian Railways now run a luxury sleeper from Moscow to Nice, passing through France, Monaco, Italy, Austria, Czechia, Poland, Belarus and Russia. This monster line is 3,315 km long and stretches across most of the continent. That’s got to be the longest in Europe, right?

Nope. Incredibly, the longest train in Europe doesn’t actually cross a single border. Unsurprisingly, it’s in Russia, but it’s not the Trans-Siberian – the vast majority of that’s route is in Asia, not Europe. No, if you really want a long European train journey, head to Adler, just south of the Olympic host city Sochi. From there, you can catch a train up to Vorkuta on the edge of the Arctic Circle. The route zigzags a bit over its 89 hour, 4,200 km journey, but it always stays on the European side of the Ural mountains.

Bring a good book.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray often tweets about this kind of nonsense at @stejormur.


All maps courtesy of Deutsche Bahn.