- Origins of Moving Day -
According to a widely known legend, the Dutch embarked on their journey for Manhattan on the 1st of May, tricking the natives into selling the island. As the poem “Dutchman’s Breeches” relates, on each May Day anniversary after the event, the Dutch would repeat this journey by leaving their houses and seeking a new shelter. Eventually this tradition became ingrained in the city life to such an extent that a year when a person did not move would be looked upon with shame.
Dutchman’s Breeches: A May-Day Legend of Mannahatta from Ballads of Old New York, Arthur Guiterman; illustrated by J. Scott Williams., Guiterman Arthur, 1871-1947, pgs. 15-18.
Washington Irving, A History of New York/ Diedrich Knickerbocker’s, Reprint, New York: Sleepy Hollow Press, 1981, pg. 123.
This letter, translated from German, makes one of the first mentions of Moving Day in the 18th century when it was still a harmless occurrence (at the time the United States was engaged in the French and Indian War (1756-1763), hence the references to captured ships). Notwithstanding the age of this letter, Moving Day is already described as an “old custom,” lending validity to it originating with the creation of the city in the 17th century.
Letter from "Moving Day" in New York Daily Times, May 2, 1856, p. 4 (Proquest Historical Newspapers)
Philip Hone was mayor of New York from 1826-1827 and a man about town. He owned a great deal of real estate and was able to profit from the rising real estate prices in New York City.
The Honorable Philip Hone, Mayor of the City of New York in 1826
NYPL Digital Gallery, The New York Public Library
In this diary entry Hone comments on the destruction brought on by Moving day and the changing nature of the city.
“Wednesday, May 1. – May-Day is fine, pleasant weather, much to the comfort of jaded wives and fretting husbands. There is a great deal of moving in the streets out of Broadway in the upper part of the city, but less I think than usual amongst the tenants of good houses. But the pulling down of houses and stores in the lower parts is awful. Brickbats, rafters, and slates are showering down in every direction. There is no safety on the sidewalks, and the head must be saved at the expense of dirtying the boots. In Wall Street, besides the great Exchange, which occupies with huge blocks of granite a few acres of the highway of merchants, there is the beautiful new Bank of the United States opposite, still obstructing the walk. Besides which four banks, the City, Manhattan, Merchants’, and Union are in progress of destruction; it looks like the ruin occasioned by an earthquake. The house at the corner of Broadway is undergoing alteration, which usurps the sidewalk. My poor dear house at 235 Broadway is coming down forthwith, and in a few weeks the home of my happy days will be incontinently swept from the earth. Farther up, at the corner of Chambers Street, a row of low buildings has been removed to make way for one of those mighty edifices called hotels – eating, drinking, and lodging above, and gay shops below; and so all the way up. The spirit of pulling down and building up is abroad. The whole of New York is rebuilt about once in ten years.”
The Diary of Philip Hone 1828-1851, ed. Allan Nevins, New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1936, pgs. 394-395
David Crockett, the famous frontiersman and fighter, visited New York to attend a dinner given in his honor by the Whig Party and was able to witness the following scene of Moving Day, which greatly shocked him.
James Atkins Shackford, David Crockett; the Man and the Legend, ed. John B.Shackford, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1956, frontispiece.
“We drove up to the city, and took a view of the improvements and beautiful houses in the new part. By the time we returned down Broadway, it seemed to me that the city was flying before some awful calamity. ‘Why,’ said I, ‘Colonel, what under heaven is the matter? Everyone appears to be pitching out their furniture, and packing it off.’ He laughed, and said this was the general ‘moving day.’ Such a sight nobody ever saw unless it was in this same city. It seemed a kind of frolic, as if they were changing houses just for fun. Every street was crowded with carts, drays, and people. So the world goes. It would take a good deal to get me out of my log-house; but here, I understand, many persons ‘move’ every year.”
Life of David Crockett, the original humorist and irrepressible backwoodsman… an autobiography, to which is added an account of his glorious death at the Alamo while fighting in defense of Texan independence, New York: A.L. Burt Co, 1902, pgs. 188-189.
George Templeton Strong, a lawyer and a very prominent New Yorker, kept a diary from 1835 until 1875, commenting on the people and events of New York.
George Templeton Strong
As a resident of the city, Moving Day did not escape his scrutiny as the following diary entry demonstrates.
“May 1. Fine weather, to the great comfort of the locomotive public. 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 bedsteads 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. We certainly haven’t advanced as a people beyond the nomadic or migratory stage of civilization analogous to that of the pastoral cow feeders of the Tartar Steppes.”
The Diary of George Templeton Strong, eds. Allan Nevins and Milton Halsey Thomas, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1952, picture pg. 11; quote pgs. 231-232.
Frances Trollope was an Englishwoman who came to America in 1827 in order to open a department store. Her enterprise was a failure and she returned to England less than four years later.
Frances Trollope, Domestic Manners of the Americans, ed. Donald Smalley, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1949, picture frontispiece; quote pgs. 349-350.
However, she did observe American society as she traveled throughout the United States and recorded the following impression of Moving Day.
“Another New York custom which does not seem to have so reasonable a cause, is the changing house once a year. 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, wagons, 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.”
John Pintard, a founder of the New-York Historical Society as well as the first Savings Bank in New York, wrote many letters to his daughter Eliza, discussing many occurrences taking place in New York.
John Pintard, NYPL Digital Gallery, The New York Public Library
In one of the letters, he confirms the belief that moving on May first was an ancient custom, tracing it back to when New York was only a small city.
“Tuesday 1st May. Hazy, raw. Yest[erda]y was very unfavorable for the general moving of our great city. High rents, incommodious dwellings, & necessity combine to crowd our streets with carts overloaded with furniture & hand barrows with sofas, chairs, sideboards, looking glasses & pictures, so as to render the sidewalks almost impassable. The practice of all moving on one day, & give up & hiring Houses in Feb[ruar]y is of an antient[sic] custom & when the city was small & inhabitants few in number, almost every body owned or continued for years tenants in the same houses. Few instances of removals were seen, but now N[ew] York is literally in an uproar for several days before & after the 1st of May. This practice of move all, to strangers appears absurd, but it is attended with the advantage of affording a greater choice of abodes in the Feb[ruar]y quarter.”
Letters From John Pintard To His Daughter Eliza Noel Pintard Davidson 1816-1833, Volume IV 1832-1833, New York: Printed For the New-York Historical Society, 1941, pg. 44.
Lydia Maria Child, a writer and an abolitionist, was living in New York as an editor of the newspaper National Anti-Slavery Standard.
Lydia Maria Child, http://www.uua.org/uuhs/duub/articles/lydiamariachild.html
While there, she commented on many things concerning New York in Letters from New York, Moving Day being among them.
“May-day in New-York is the saddest thing, to one who has been used to hunting mosses by the brook, and paddling in its waters. Brick walls, instead of budding trees, and rattling wheels in lieu of singing birds, are bad enough; but to make the matter worse, all New-York moves on the first of May; not only moves about, as usual, in the everlasting hurry-scurry of business, but one house empties itself into another, all over the city. The streets are full of loaded drays, on which tables are dancing, and carpets rolling to and fro. Small chairs, which bring up such pretty, cozy images of rolly-pooly mannikens and maidens, eating supper from tilted porringers, and spilling the milk on their night-gowns – these go ricketting along on the tops of beds and bureaus, and not unfrequently pitch into the street, and so fall asunder. Children are driving hither and yon, one with a flower-pot in his hand, another with work-box, band-box, or oil-canakin; each so intent upon his important mission, that all the world seems to him (as it does to many a theologican,) safely locked up within the little walls he carries. Luckily, both boy and bigot are mistaken, or mankind would be in a bad box, sure enough. The dogs seem bewildered with this universal transmigration of bodies; and as for the cats, they sit on the door-steps, mewing piteously, that they were not born in the middle ages, or at least in the quiet old portion of the world. And I, who have almost as strong a love of localities as poor puss, turn away from the windows, with a suppressed anathema on the nineteenth century, with its perpetual changes. Do you want an appropriate emblem of this country, and this age? Then stand on the side-walks of New-York, and watch the universal transit on the first of May… However, human being are such creatures of habit and imitation, that what is necessity soon becomes fashion, and each one wishes to do what everyone else is doing. A lady in the neighbourhood closed all her binds and shutters, on May-day; being asked by her acquaintance whether she had been in the country, she answered, ‘I was ashamed not to be moving on the first of May; and so I shut up the house that the neighbours might not know it.’ One could not well imagine a fact more characteristic of the despotic sway of custom and public opinion, in the United States, and the nineteenth century.”
Lydia Maria Child, Letters from New-York, ed, Bruce Mills, Athens & London: The University of Georgia Press, 1998, pgs. 175-178.
Mrs. Felton, another Englishwoman in America, wrote on the customs of the Americans, and also noted the strangeness of this moving custom.
“By an established custom, the houses are let from this day [May 1st] for the term of one year certain; and, as the inhabitants in general love variety, and seldom reside in the same house for two consecutive years, those who have to change, which appears to be nearly the whole city, must be all removed together. Hence, from the peep of day till twilight, may be seen carts which go at a rate of speed astonishingly rapid, laden with furniture of every kind, racing up and down the city, as if its inhabitants were flying from a pestilence, pursued by death with his broad scythe just ready to mow them into eternity.”
Mrs. Felton, American Life: A Narrative of Two Years’ City And Country Residence in the United States, Boston: Printed For the Authorities, 1843, pg. 52