Moving Day: New York Style

Early feminist Ernestine Rose, the heroine of my novel-in-progress, and her husband William changed residences multiple times during the more than 30 years they resided in New York City, which means that they frequently had to cope with what was known as Moving Day.

Harpers Weekly, 1859

Until well into the 20th century, most residential leases in New York City expired on May 1, meaning that on that day, much of the population would be changing houses simultaneously. Diarist George Templeton Strong wrote on May 1, 1844, “Never knew the city in such a chaotic state. Every other house seems to be disgorging itself into the street; all the sidewalks are lumbered with bureaus and bedspreads to the utter destruction of their character as thoroughfares, and all the space between the sidewalks is occupied by long processions of carts and wagons and vehicles omnigenous laden with perilous piles of moveables.”

1856 cartoon via Wikipedia

Visiting Englishwoman Frances Trollope wrote in her Domestic Manners of the Americans: “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, waggons, 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.”

Moving Day (in Little Old New York), artist unknown, ca. 1827 (The Met)

The New York Times observed on April 30, 1873, “To one class alone is the day an era of rejoicing. It is the carman’s harvest. For once his nag is looking spruce and hearty, his truck is newly painted, and his face beams with smiles.”

In 1849, the New York Atlas produced this ditty, which was picked up by other newspapers, in honor of the occasion:

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