01 May 2021

May Day: A Story about Work, Worry, and Profanity

When I was young and (mostly) unencumbered with Stuff, moving day meant buying pizza and beer for my friends to thank them for helping me roll my mattress and boxes down the stairs. It was a small price to pay for dealing with the nuisances of moving.

Thankfully I've not had to move house in over twenty years, but every May Day I think about the horrors of doing so. That's because as far back as American colonial times, May 1 was the traditional date when yearly rentals expired. 

For generations in this nation's crowded urban centers, May Day meant Moving Day.

It was...kind of chaotic

Moving Day (in Little Old New York), c. 1827, unknown artist
Metropolitan Museum of Art

In New York, the state legislature mandated that all housing contracts were valid until the first of May. But lest you think this May Day Moving Day was only a Manhattan phenomenon, rest assured that even without a legislative mandate, it happened in Pittsburgh, too. 

Well, eventually it did. 

Throughout much of the 19th century, rental leases in the Pittsburgh region actually ran through April 1. According to a Pittsburgh Press article in 1888, that April date had been "adapted to the agriculturists, who thus may be on their new farms in time for spring work."

So while Manhattan played musical apartments on May 1, for a long time Pittsburgh flipped on April 1. 

Regardless of the date, an entire city moving en masse was utter chaos. The Pittsburgh Press described moving day in 1888: "Everywhere to-day could be seen loads of household goods with their suggestions of work, worry and profanity; cold meals and refractory stovepipes; reckless draymen; and, in some cases, defrauded landlords."

Cartoon, Harper's Weekly, 1869

Work, worry, and profanity? Yes, that about sums up the tedium of moving. 

Even Pittsburgh's snobby society newspaper The Bulletin sympathized in 1890. Its wealthy readers could relate to upheaval and worries about moving one's Stuff, though not so much with anxieties about homelessness that many Pittsburghers experienced when searching for affordable housing. 

The Bulletin, 29 March 1890

Moving was even more fun when it rained, like it did in 1903. A Pittsburgh Gazette account captured the sights and sounds of that delightful day:


Wet and bedraggled, cold and hungry, with aching bones and tempers on edge, several hundred families that claim Pittsburgh as their home, last night pulled out enough damp bedding to make an excuse for a couch and covers and lay down to dreams of warm, dry, cozy homes. They had moved, in spite of the weather, for it was a case of must.

Long after the tired movers had retired, the steaming teams of the transfer companies could be seen plodding along with empty cans and wagons which had been to some distant street. Their covers had availed little to keep out the furious storm of rain, and the heavy blankets that were used for wrappers were plastered with mud. All in all, yesterday was the nastiest moving day that Pittsburgh had seen for many a year.

From daylight till late in the evening a constant string of mishaps was reported. Wagons stuck in the mud or turned over; people who had ordered vans and wagons without covers and were furious in consequence; angry women whose health or disposition forbade them going out in the rain, screamed warning orders to the "hustlers" from upstairs windows; drivers who were told the family at the other end of the route would be out of the house found them still in possession and had to deposit the newcomer's goods on the porch or in a shed.

The telephones in the transfer offices fairly buzzed with indignant inquiries or angry complaints. Nobody knew or cared what part of the general inconvenience the other fellow was sharing. It was enough for him that his goods were not being moved in the manner and condition that he had expected.

Logistics could be tricky. Accompanying the article above, this Pittsburgh Gazette cartoon illustrated how renters were required to vacate by March 31 even though they couldn't move into their new digs until April 1. With late March and early April weather being unpredictable and often inhospitable, folks looked toward the May Day Moving Day of other cities with longing.

Pittsburgh Gazette, 31 March 1903

Eventually Pittsburgh residents would transition from an April 1 to May Day moving day like all the other cities, but it took a while. Pittsburgh's late 19th century urban economy was indisputably dominated by industry, not agriculture, but old traditions die hard. 

The city's last official communal April moving day was in 1906. The Pittsburgh Post marked the occasion with some photos and an accompanying article:

Pity the poor housewife.

And the tired husband, think of him with a sympathetic feeling. For this is the day after moving-day when the troubles and the tribulations of domestic life are multiplied by the arduous work of unpacking household goods and getting things in shape. "Moving Day" passed off without incident, beyond the usual confusion and trying times for the unfortunates who were obliged to pack up and hike to other quarters.

Moving day began as early as 4 o'clock yesterday morning with the rumblings of the great vans heavily loaded with all sorts of furniture, to say nothing of the pet dog or bird perched on the topmost point, could plainly be heard. Anxious people awaited at the house for the arrival of the goods, and it was not the most kindly words uttered by many over the tardiness of the wagons in reaching their destination.

But it was moving day, and for this a great deal had to be tolerated.

The streets presented interesting sights all through the day and night. In the downtown section the moving vans were quite conspicuous and people out for an afternoon stroll found much delight watching the household goods from some family in Allegheny being carted to East Liberty or some other distant point.

Vehicles of every possible description were pressed into service yesterday. It was a funny assortment. Even the dilapidated team of Uncle Remus found its way into the great parade of moving vehicles. Ideal weather also helped.

The transfer companies reaped a rich harvest yesterday. Each load brought $15 and in some cases an even higher price was asked. Less trouble is expected next year, for Moving Day will be changed to May 1, which is shown by the fact that nearly all the leases this year have been signed for 13 months. the big job will be spread over a larger period of time and the work will be made much easier for everybody.

There was much doing in the skyscrapers yesterday. Hundreds of firms changed locations, and the directory man will be busier than ever when he starts.


Images and story from Pittsburgh Post, 3 April 1906

A Moving Day excuse at least got you off the hook for doing your civic duty, since judges often made concessions for jurors who had to move house. But Moving Day made no concession for the Lord's Day -- or maybe it was the other way around. May Day fell on a frigid, rainy Sunday in 1921 and the Pittsburgh Post explained that "In many cases the loads were discharged into bare houses and apartments that, because of the day being a Sunday, were without heat, and sometimes without light. The new tenants who had forgotten Saturday to fix things up with the light and gas people, as a rule, found that they faced a cold night in their new homes." Even with lousy weather and Sabbath-observing utility hook-ups, the papers reported a record number of moves in 1921 in the East End, Oakland and Wilkinsburg.
A decade later, this excerpt from a below-the-fold front-page column by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette staff writer James R. George entitled "World Just One Big Checkerboard Today" poked fun at the 1930 moving chaos.
Moving Day, or Nervous Breakdown day, as it was called in the old Ptoemai chronology, began early this morning and lasts until about sundown, or approximately too long.

The day will be observed in Pittsburgh with appropriate celebrations, including the smashing of 2,789 vases which somebody gave Junior to carry to the new place. There will also be the partial electrocution of 648 little darlings who will rub the loose wires for the electric refrigerator together to see them spark. Having things like this happen is sometimes loosely described as the joy of parenthood.

In addition, approximately 7,000 members of the so-called gentle sex will look out the window and inform their husbands, "Good heavens, Sam, those ones moving next door have nine kids, and I don't think she's washed their faces since Easter."

There are not as many people moving in Pittsburgh this Moving Day as last Moving Day, because most of them have moved already. Moving companies have been hauling them for less money the last couple of weeks so there wouldn't be a big rush today. This way they managed to have a big rush every day for two weeks.

By the 1940s, motivation and ability to move on May 1 were on the wane. This was partly due to wartime Federal regulations that froze rents, thereby reducing an economic necessity to move. But the very act of moving was also more difficult during the war years due to a depleted male labor force. After all, most of those hottt, brawny moving men were away fighting overseas.  

Post-WWII leases were more flexible, given the staggered return of so many soldiers seeking housing. The May Day Moving Day custom still held sway for some years to come. Bell Telephone reported between 11,000 to 12,000 phone number transfer requests for May 1 in the early 1950s, but Pittsburgh's tradition of May Day Moving Day mass migration ceased by the end of that decade.

But the work, worry, and profanity associated with moving? That never ends. 

A version of this article appeared on my Facebook page in May 2018.

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