For some 200 years, the busiest day in New York City was neither Thanksgiving nor New Year’s Eve. It was May 1, when, at 9:00 a.m., everybody’s apartment lease expired. All at once, hundreds of thousands of people had to grab their things and move to a new home.
Every year, bedlam ensued. Horses and carriages clogged the roads, beds and bureaus rendered walkways impassable, and people’s belongings spilled into the streets. “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,” wrote Frances Trollope in 1832. Two years later, Davy Crockett witnessed the fiasco firsthand, saying, “It seemed to me that the city was flying before some awful calamity.”
To make matters more exciting, people weren’t just moving out of houses—some landowners took the opportunity to tear old houses down. “Brickbats, rafters, and slates are showering down in every direction,” wrote former New York City mayor Philip Hone in 1839. Everybody could expect to see their furniture get trashed, too. An 1855 New York Times editorial cautioned movers that their possessions would “grow very old ’twixt morning and night,” advising them to buy some nails, glue, putty, and a pint of varnish to buff out the inevitable scratches.
Why May 1? It was city legend that May Day was when Henry Hudson and his Dutch crew on the Halve Maen had set out for Manhattan. That wasn’t actually true, but early New Yorkers celebrated anyway by going on annual journeys of their own— and finding new homes for themselves. As decades passed, the tradition became law.
But by the 20th century, Moving Day started to fizzle. Rent laws relaxed, and more tenants decided to renew their leases each year. Still, the custom didn’t die until GIs returned home from World War II. The city’s population soared, and the housing stock, already suffering, cratered. By 1945, nobody wanted to move. So they didn’t. A similar tradition, however, still lives on—in Quebec.