For us modern folks, the first of May conjures visions of blooming cherry blossoms and the growing anticipation of summer enjoyments. But for the Brooklynites of yesteryear, the date evoked dread and thoughts of pandemonium in the streets. Why?
May 1 was Moving Day.
It’s hard to believe, but for more than a century, all New York City leases expired and started on the same day of the year, May 1. This meant thousands of families loading up the entirety of their belongings onto carts and maneuvering them through the cramped city streets to new apartments.
The origins of this unfortunate practice are hazy — some say it began with English celebrations of May Day. But by 1820, the New York State legislature signed a law stating that unless you worked something out with your landlord or renewed your lease, all leases were up on the first of May.
Landlords would inform their tenants of any rent increases for the coming year on February 1, giving tenants three months to find a new place or decide to stay. With the new rent due on May 1, most families elected to remain in their old abodes until the very last moment, moving en masse using horses and carts.
For moving and storage companies, it was Black Friday — they made a killing.
Naturally, the trauma of this annual event inspired countless cartoons, comedy skits and even a poem. From the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on May 2, 1904:
The day was also a helpful barometer of the city’s rental market. There wasn’t quite the same access to data in the 19th century as there is now, and real estate holders would gauge the day’s level of chaos (or lack thereof) to draw useful inferences about the state of the market.
On May 1, 1891, for instance, a journalist writing for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle commented:
The real estate men say this is the tamest May day in many years. There are many houses vacant and comparatively few people are changing their quarters.
The most noticeable feature is the suburban boom which May day has developed. Many people who have been paying for lots in the outlying districts ever since the elevated roads were pushed through, and who have erected houses within the past year or so, selected to-day as their moving day and a great many small houses in the suburbs are inhabited this afternoon for the first time.
In the 1920s, the prominence of Moving Day dwindled. More tenants arranged to move later in May or June, but the practice didn’t entirely die out until after World War II, when the rise of tenant protections like rent control and a general housing shortage made the majority of renters stay in their existing abodes.
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