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“The First of May” in Sartain’s Union Magazine of Literature and Art, June 1852; Vol. X, No.6 (APS Online, pg. 497)
“The First of May” in Sartain’s Union Magazine of Literature and Art, June 1852; Vol. X, No.6, p. 497
(Image published with permission of ProQuest-CSA LLC. Further reproduction is prohibited without permission) 
 

“Every citizen of New-York who does not own his domicile appears to think that on or about the 1st [of] May, he is bound by some mysterious influence to change his residence and especially does this seem to be the case this year”

These words, written in the April 30, 1865 edition of The New York Times, echoed a New York tradition that stretched back to the very founding of the city in the 17th century—Moving Day. For decades, until the end of the eighteen hundreds, New Yorkers would assemble their belongings and move en masse on or around the first of May, which came to be known as Moving Day.

Where the custom originated remains a debate but according to legend, the Dutch settlers who bought Manhattan from Native Americans had set out on their journey for the island on the first of May, repeating this moving odyssey year after year. This tradition remained harmless when New York was still a small city however, as the population exploded in the 19th century, Moving Day became a major nuisance. Every year a large portion of New Yorkers who did not renew their leases were forced to move on May first, putting a virtual standstill to all other activity in New York. The streets became clogged with a throng of people trying to get their possessions into their new residences. When the dust of the resulting confusion cleared, New York appeared as if an earthquake just hit: broken dishes, shattered furniture and destroyed houses (old homes were pulled down to make way for the new) were everywhere.

A shift began to occur in the moving pattern by the end of the 19th century as more and more people began to leave the city for the suburbs in the summer. They would then return to the city in the fall, reclaiming their household belongings from storage, and rent homes in October.

For a while, May Day stood alongside October 1st as Moving Day, eventually fading out to such an extant as to remain a Moving Day in name only; most of the moving on that day being done by businesses. The moving process itself transformed from a “helter-skelter” event to a science, as insured moving vans were able to transport their client’s worldly possessions without much incident.  However the moving industry periodically complained that they could not handle the demand on Moving Day, while for the rest of the year much of their labor force was underemployed. Painters, plumbers, construction and utility companies were forced to gear up at that specific time of the year, with business falling off after October. At the height of Moving Day in the twentieth century, an estimated one million New Yorkers moved at the same time. The end of World War II heralded the final collapse of moving day as housing shortages and rent control put an end to the sporadic movement of the previous years.

 This exhibit is an attempt to briefly resurrect an event that was once an integral part of New York City life. During its long existence, Moving Day was able to permeate into virtually all levels of conscience, the results of which are presented thorough literature, advertisements and eyewitness accounts, to name just a few.

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