Moving Day

“The first of May in New York City.”

“DO you want,” pronounced an eminent journalist, “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.” We could suppose the scene to which Lydia Maria Child referred was some rite of rejuvenation, an urban awakening to the warmth of spring. But in this city of three hundred thousand it betokened much more: a combination of custom, law, high rents and a chronic housing shortage, that turned every May Day in New York into a yearly spectacle of mass migration.1

From time immemorial May Day was Moving Day, the date when leases expired all across the city. Starting in February, once notified of the next year’s rent, tenants unwilling or unable to accept the terms had three months to secure other lodgings. In the meantime, placards proclaiming “This house to let” began to adorn premises destined for new occupants come May the first.

In the closing days of April, the city streets trembled beneath overloaded wagons and carts. On May Day the dam broke: from before dawn until past dark, every sidewalk, alley and avenue was choked by a deluge of beds and bedsteads, curtains and carpets, divans and dishes, mirrors, wardrobes, tables, chairs, pots, pans and picture frames. The masters of these mountains of household goods stood by, yearning for a sight of the lowly but suddenly respected cartman.2 In the haste and confusion, cherished belongings were scuffed, scraped and shattered. Some tenants reached their new dwellings only to find them not yet vacated. Its streets rendered impassable, much of New York’s business ground to a halt.

Steeped in the philosophical currents of the age, Child saw the Moving Day tradition, which persisted into the twentieth century, as a proof of something transcendental: “That people should move so often in this city, is generally a matter of their own volition. Aspirations after the infinite, lead them to perpetual change, in the restless hope of finding something better and better still.”3

It’s true that some moved for no other cause than to be fashionable, and not a few (children in particular) thrilled to the drama of displacement. But pragmatic reasons and prosaic sentiments surely held sway. Those moving up the real estate ladder sought more space, better amenities, more convenient or prestigious locations. Those in less fortunate circumstances, including many adversely affected by business setbacks and frequent recessions, needed accommodation they could more easily afford. Demand for cheap housing far outran the supply; the cost of living and a dearth of public assistance drove tens of thousands–a fifth of all New Yorkers, according to the calculations of clergyman Samuel I. Prime–to depend on charity for their survival.4

William Mitchell’s comic theater at 444 Broadway, the Olympic.

For many of those choosing or compelled to endure the Moving Day maelstrom, the experience held little romance: to some it suggested nothing less than the calamities of war. Every May first, cried the editor of the New York Mirror, “we are upset, and overset–robbed, murdered, pillaged, undone and overdone–turned inside out and outside in.”5 “The streets and side walks present the appearance of a sacked city,” the ritual pillage carried out each year, fair weather or foul.6 Moving Day chaos was a rich subject for cartoons and lampoons. The suggestion that it would make “a capital subject for an amusing farce” was followed to the letter by comic impresario William Mitchell: his celebrated theater on Broadway, the Olympic, presented “The First of May, or, The Miseries of a Moving Day,” in the spring of 1841.7

When Reverend Prime’s future friend William A. Whitehead decided to settle in New York, the options for housing were limited. It was the fall, the midpoint of the usual term for leases. The well-being of Whitehead’s two small children and pregnant wife and the approach of winter all lent urgency to the search. The Greenwich Village dwelling where they landed on Barrow Street–“before cold weather set in”–was unfurnished and small; one senses that it quickly became too small.8 But if they were to “trade up” at the expiration of their lease, they could expect to suffer with throngs of New Yorkers the following Moving Day’s slings and arrows.

12-18 Grove Street from an 1856 atlas.

The Whiteheads’ second Manhattan winter revealed a way forward. From the rear of their Barrow Street address they looked out on the stables, outbuildings and refuse of Mixed Ale Alley. But just beyond, on a stretch of lots to the north and east, masons, carpenters and bricklayers were raising a quartet of fine, adjoining townhomes, their fronts turned toward Grove Street.

The new houses’ dimensions and features looked identical: each was three stories tall, atop a brownstone basement; each story was three windows across; all had relatively unadorned brick façades and stone stoops flanked by iron railings, leading up to handsome Greek Revival doorways at parlor level. It’s safe to assume that this modest refinement extended also to the interiors. As proof of the quality and taste of their completed work, builders Samuel Winant and John Degraw moved in side by side to the middle houses of the row, numbers 14 and 16 respectively. The ones at either end, 12 and 18, were put up for rent.9

The townhouses on Grove Street as they appear today. The two middle façades are relatively unchanged. The Whiteheads lived at number 12 on the far end.

The approach of that year’s Moving Day, given the continued financial dislocations of the period, threatened an upheaval of historic dimensions.10 Whatever the stratagems Whitehead employed, whatever the amount he agreed to pay, he successfully procured the nearest of the four houses, escaping the anguish of scouring far-flung parts of town, and sparing his family an agonizing transition. Indeed, on the morning after, an excitable editor ventured to call Moving Day 1840 “about the most excruciating” since the end of Dutch rule, nearly two centuries past.11 Whitehead’s was an achievement beyond measure.

The summer of 1840 found the Whitehead family comfortably situated at 12 Grove Street, a household of nine. William is the only resident named in the federal census of that year, but four of the remainder can from their sexes and ages be identified as his wife, Margaret, and their three children, Penelope, William (called “Willie-boy”) and James Parker, all under 5. The census taker at their address also found three young white females–probably domestic workers rather than lodgers–and one older woman of color, likely the servant known only as “Aunty,” who followed the Whiteheads to New York from Key West.12

The Whitehead home at 12 Grove Street as it looks today. The stoop has been removed and the front entry is now at basement level.

While a good deal larger than their former house, the new home was rarely empty: William’s mother Abby, who resided with her son on Barrow Street “most of the time,” probably continued to do so after the move. Perth Amboy friends made 12 Grove Street a base for shopping trips, and it was seldom without winter guests: “one or two or more with us for weeks at a time.” Whitehead would forever remember it as the setting of “many events of great interest, some very painful, some very much the reverse,” alluding to the birth there of two more boys, and the death of two in infancy.13

The Whiteheads’ tenure on Grove Street was eventful, but it was not to last. Hard times were driving poorer tenants into ever more crowded and unhealthy quarters, or out of Manhattan entirely.14 Probably many factors led Whitehead to leave New York in 1843, but among the more compelling considerations was the rail link with Newark by way of Jersey City: it allowed him to continue working in New York, while his offspring enjoyed a more salubrious environment and room to grow.  The Whitehead children’s first Newark home on Broad Street came with an extensive garden, “a fine play-ground” for Willie-boy and the others.15 The move also set their father on a course to associations and undertakings that, while new, he had been preparing for years to assume. Though still reliant on New York for his “business relations,” William Whitehead began to regard himself as a New Yorker no more.16

Copyright © 2020-2023 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] “Letters from New-York.–No. 58,” in National anti-slavery standard (New York, N.Y.) 3:48 (4 May 1843) 191, repr. in L. Maria Child, Letters from New-York (New York 1843) 272-276. For the economic pressures that contributed to the tumult of Moving Day, see Elizabeth Blackmar, Manhattan for rent, 1785-1850 (Ithaca, N.Y. and London 1989) 213-216.

[2] “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 more importance than at any other time during the year. Everybody then calls him Mr. Cartman, and when the first day 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.” I. S. Lyon, “No. 1–New York cartmen,” Recollections of an old cartman … from the Newark Journal (Newark 1872) (3-5) 4.

[3] “Letters from New-York.–No. 58,” repr. in Child 273-274.

[4] [Samuel Irenæus Prime,] Life in New York (New York 1847) 209-211.

[5] “May day,” New-York (N.Y.) mirror 17:45 (2 May 1840) 356.

[6] “May morning,” New-York mirror 19:19 (8 May 1841) 151.

[7] “…it should be taken up by some ingenious playwright, and brought out by Mitchell at the Olympic.” “May-day,” New-York mirror 17:36 (29 February 1840) 287. See George C. D. Odell, Annals of the New York stage 4 (New York 1928) 505. On William Mitchell and the renowned Olympic Theatre, see George C. D. Odell,  “Some theatrical stock companies of New York,” The theatre annual 1951 9:(7-26) 8-14. Little is known regarding Mitchell’s May-Day farce, and less about another written by Charles P. Clinch and staged a decade earlier at the Park Theatre, entitled “The First of May in New-York, or Double or Quit”: see Joseph N. Ireland, Records of the New York stage from 1750 to 1860 (2 vols. New York 1866) 1:627.  Noteworthy works of humor about Moving Day include “A comic annual,” in Henry J. Finn, ed. American comic annual (Boston 1831) 1-4; Seba Smith’s satire May-day in New-York; or house-hunting and moving; illustrated and explained in letters to Aunt Keziah. By Major Jack Downing (New York 1845); and many a May-Day piece in the weekly and daily newspapers.

[8] See my previous post “Barrow Street.”

[9] Greenwich Village Historic District designation report (2 vols. New York 1969) 2:242.

[10] “The approaching first of May promises to be a great day in New-York; an unusual number of removals–unusual even for this city–will take place, if we may judge from the ominous bills posted on nearly every other house we pass.” “May-day,” New-York mirror 17:36 (29 February 1840) 287.

[11] “May day,” New-York mirror 17:45 (2 May 1840) 356.

[12] Population schedules of the sixth census of the United States, 1840, New York, City of New York, ward 9; roll 303, page 76. For the life of “old Aunty” we have only passages in the memoir “Childhood and youth of W. A. Whitehead 1810-1830,” of which a transcription is held by the Florida History Department, Monroe County Public Library, Key West, Florida, and by the P. K. Yonge Library of Florida, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida; pages 38-40 and 43 of the transcription contain all that is presently known about her.

[13] “Childhood and youth” 45, 47.

[14] Former mayor Philip Hone complained of the increased burden on him and his fellow landlords: “Rents are fifty per cent. lower and taxes fifty per cent. higher; nearly the whole burthen of taxes falls upon real estate, for it is the only tangible property. … Several of my tenants are unable to pay the rent of last year; all the good ones are going away, and the reduction of rent in the few cases where they remain is ruinous.” Bayard Tuckerman, ed. The diary of Philip Hone 1828-1851 (2 vols. New York 1889) (entry of 1 February 1843) 2:172.

[15] “Childhood and youth” 47-48. This house, at the corner of Fulton Street, would become the residence of Whitehead’s brother-in-law Cortlandt Parker, a well-known Newark attorney.

[16] Of his ties to Newark Whitehead wrote: “from the first I endeavored so to identify myself with the best interests of the place as to become generally known, and, as I believe, respected by my fellow citizens.” He was after all a native of the place, and felt “since 1843 ‘part and parcel’ of Newark.” “Childhood and youth” 51-52.

Images: 1) “The First of May in New York City–Moving Out,” Frank Leslie’s illustrated newspaper (12 May 1866) 121, Harry T. Peters Collection of Pictorial Newspaper Illustrations, PR 49, folder 100, New-York Historical Society. 2) “Mitchell’s Olympic Theatre,” ca. 1840: The Eno Collection of New York City Views, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library, New York Public Library Digital Collections. 3) 12-18 Grove Street: William Perris, Maps of the city of New-York surveyed under directions of insurance companies of said city 5 (New York 1854) pl. 63 (detail) via New York Public Library Digital Collections. 4) Townhouses: 5) 16 Grove Street: author’s photograph.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.