After packing up to move into the house we currently live in (about ten years ago), I remember telling my family, “Let’s make the best of this, because we’re never moving again.” It was one of those moves where things went wrong. My husband threw his back out. Things were broken. Things were lost – never to be seen again. It just wasn’t a really well orchestrated event. But while I’m still quite content to stay where I am, when I look at what some of our ancestors went through when they had to move, I have to admit my experience really pales in comparison.
The immigrant ancestors who left all they knew, most of their worldly possessions, and hopped into the hull of a wooden ship for a month or more-long journey across the ocean are real contenders when it comes for the prize of “Worst Move.” And certainly those crossing the wilderness in a covered wagon are in the running as well. But we often overlook our urban ancestor’s relocation adventures, which deserve an honorable mention.
In New York and some other cities, May first was the day when all leases expired, so it was a kind of universal “moving day.” In New York, by law, tenants had until noon on the first of May to be out of their apartments and the already busy streets of the city teemed with carts loaded with household furnishings. As the New York Daily Times, of 01 May 1856, reported:
“Our streets are always in confusion, but when to the ordinary business of the City is added the turmoil and tumult of a general change of residence, New-York on the 1st of May affords a very lively idea of the effect of an earthquake.”
We can relate to the travails of living out of boxes before and after a move, and our ancestors were no different in this aspect. And when it came to the actual move, our ancestor’s turned to the movers of their day—the carmen. The New York Times of 30 April 1865 (last column) included this description:
“On the 1st of May, too, the carman becomes a different creature. Not particularly civil at any time, on moving day he must be approached with caution. He has become lord of the ascendant. Ordinary offers do not tempt him. He has been known to laugh and scorn a man who offered him $5 to convey a load half a dozen blocks. He declines making any previous engagements. He seeks no customers, but rather conveys the idea that he would prefer to be let alone. At the same time he keeps a sharp eye for business, and only accepts an offer when he knows he can’t beat a cost more out of his customer. And then when engaged, he goes about his work with supremest indifference. Five hundred dollar pier glasses he looks upon as everyday affairs. Carpets of velvet, tapestry and Brussels he wipes his feet upon. Sofas and tables stand no chance with him. If they are strong, he is stronger. Something must give way, and it’s generally speaking the furniture and not the carman.”
[Author’s Note: As a descendant of several of these much maligned movers of the day, in their defense, I’m sure there were many kind-hearted carmen out there who were nothing like this Snidely Whiplash-ish portrayal. Just sayin’.]
The “moving day” ritual wasn’t limited to New York. The Encyclopedia of Chicago reveals that the moving day in that city occurred on either May 1st or October 1st, although in 1865 the May 1st date was bumped to May 3rd to accommodate the passing of President Lincoln’s funeral cortege.
And The Indianapolis Star of 29 April 1912 quipped:
“There will be a groaning and gnashing of teeth in Indianapolis tomorrow for May 1 is the date for all unshattered resolutions governing profanity to be broken formally.”
Moving day even had an impact on the creation of city directories in that the compilers began canvassing the city after the first of May so that the residences would be current for the upcoming year. Trow’s New York City Directory of 1876 makes reference to this practice in the preface.
So if you’re the descendant of urban dwelling ancestors and wondering why none of the family heirlooms survived to be passed down, it may be that they fell victim to the custom of “moving day.” As this newspaper quoted Ben Franklin, “Three moves are as bad as one fire.”
About Juliana Smith
Juliana Szucs Smith has been working for Ancestry.com for more than 16 years. She began her family history journey trolling through microfilms with her mother at the age of 11. She has written many articles for online and print genealogical publications and wrote the "Computers and Technology" chapter of The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Juliana holds a certificate from Boston University's Online Genealogical Research Program, and is currently on the clock working towards certification from the Board for Certification of Genealogists.