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- Movers of Moving Day -

Before the advent of cars and vans, moving was done by licensed cartmen. Although their services were greatly sought after on Moving Day, many were held in low regard as this caricature of the “olden days” shows. The cartmen’s lack of concern for their clients was legendary as something would always end up broken due to their apathy.

Metamorphosis of ‘Moving Day’ in New York
Metamorphosis of ‘Moving Day’ in New York,” in New York Times, April 23, 1905, p. x8 (ProQuest Historical Newspapers)

Issac Lyon was a New York City cartman who kept a cart-stand at Broadway and Houston Streets. Originally a carpenter, he came to the city with the hopes of continuing in that profession. However, he chose to become a cartman after a depression hit New York. His memoirs, Recollections of An Old Cartman [Old New York Street Life], gives an insight into the world of the cartmen and of New York City life in the 19th century.

Issac S. Lyon

“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 the more importance than at any other time during the year. Everybody then calls him Mr. Cartman, and when the first of May arrives then ‘stand from under!’ He then becomes very domineering, and everybody feels that it is their interest, if not their duty, to bow and cringe to him, for on that day of all the year it is generally admitted that a cartman may charge any price that he pleases. Through a long contained practice this has become a fixed custom, which no one presumes to call in question, although there is no law in existence that justifies this assumption. All the goods and personal property, as well as a large portion of the real, contained within the city limits have passed through the hands of the New York cartmen at one time or another, and I fully believe that, were the truth of the case known, more wealth passes through the hands of the city cartmen every year than is handled by the whole board of Wall street brokers.”         

Issac S. Lyon, Recollections of An Old Cartman [Old New York Street Life], intro by Graham Hodges, Reprint, New York: New York Bound, 1984, picture fronticepiece; quote pg. 4.

Price gauging on the part of the cartmen and later van men was widely known by New York citizens, many of who were forced to pay a week’s wage to facilitate the move. To prevent gauging, the city enacted laws that stated the amount legally allowed to charge. Unfortunately since the supply of available movers remained limited, they continued to keep charging exuberant prices. Articles like this would periodically be published on the eve of Moving Day informing the public, as on doors of today’s taxicabs, how much it is legal to charge.

What It Costs To Move - New York Times 1890
What It Costs To Move” in New York Times, April 29, 1890, p. 5 (ProQuest Historical Newspapers).

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