Believe it: moving in NYC used to be even worse


Moving Day 1859, Harper’s Weekly


When summer arrives, so do the rental trucks, crowding the narrow city streets so that squeezing by in a taxi or even on foot becomes a Herculean challenge. If you’re about to make a move yourself and dreading the stress, sweat, and heavy lifting, count yourself lucky that the entire city didn’t plan their moves for the exact same day. Because that would be ridiculous… right?

For New Yorkers of yore, that’s exactly how things used to work. Starting in the 1800s—and as recently as 1940—all apartment leases expired at once on May 1st. If you think you have it bad having to deal with the college kids who are overcharging you to use their band van, imagine the madcap scene of a million people (literally) moving at once, carts packed to the brim with Victorian knickknacks and spooked dogs and cats scurrying underfoot.

So whose bright idea was this poorly thought-out event? Some claimed that the Dutch first set out on the journey that would eventually take them to “New Amsterdam”—better known to us as the borough of Manhattan—on the first of May and memorialized the occasion by embarking on new life journeys every year on that date. Others claim the tradition emerged from May Day, a Pagan-ish holiday that marked the beginning of spring—yet another symbolic time of change. Whatever the justification, it was a bad idea that somehow lasted until World War II, when the majority of moving men vanished, drafted into the military, and government housing regulations and rent control policies changed at last.

So the next time you find yourself cursing your box spring as you try to guide it up an impossibly narrow stairwell, take comfort in your soon-to-be modern digs and think instead of the moving announcements and housewarming invitations you are about to send out.