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 It was repealed eight years later, but the practice stuck as the city grew.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.