Why May 1st Was "Moving Day" For All of Manhattan

Why May 1st Was "Moving Day" For All of Manhattan

Jennifer Hunter
Apr 2, 2014

Think you hate moving? Think about this: if you lived in New York City at any point from colonial times to World War II, then you'd really have some complaints come May 1. May Day, that oh-so-pleasant-sounding spring day, was also known as "Moving Day" because it was the day when everyone moved. Yep, everyone. On the same day. How did this curious tradition get started? Read on.

According to legend, Moving Day originated from the Dutch. They set out on their first journey to Manhattan on May 1 (eventually "buying" Manhattan from the Native Americans with trinkets and beads) and celebrated that journey every year thereafter by moving houses — creating a tradition that would last for several centuries while Manhattan grew and grew.

In the days before rent control, custom called for landlords to notifiy tenants of their rent increase for the coming year on February 1, giving them three months to make new housing arrangements before their price increase went into effect on, you guessed it, May 1.

On that day, horse-drawn carriages flooded the streets, carting the belongings of every New York renter back and forth and, of course, creating mass chaos. Cartmen were booked solid and enjoyed some personal popularity as moving day approached. In Recollections of An Old Cartman, Isaac Lyon says:

“During the last two weeks in April of each year the cartmen begin to put on a few extra airs, and look and act with more importance than at any other time during the year. Everybody then calls him Mr. Cartman...when the first of May arrives.

So just what did it cost to move? As you can imagine, with so much competition for their services, cartmen could practically set their price. Finally, the city began to regulate prices to discourage gouging. Per 1890 laws, it cost $2 per one-horse truckload within two miles and a whopping 50 cents per extra mile. Check out this great article from the New York Times:

(Image credit: Baruch College Library)

Baruch College Library

As stressful as this process may sound, moving day was also looked upon as a kind of exciting holiday; children often had the day off from school. And some households were luckier than others — bachelors were the envy of all men because moving their few possessions was so simple.

As new rent control laws in the 20th century began to offer renters increased price protection, the tradition of moving day began to fade away, until it died out completely. We love finding out fascinating, little-known tidbits about New York history. As a current New Yorker (who moved into my current apartment last May 1), I'm certainly grateful not to have to compete with the rest of Manhattan to move.

Want more about Moving Day? Check out this fascinating and comprehensive online exhibit.

Via Ephemeral New York.

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