Harry T. Peter’s Collection of Pictorial Newspaper Illustrations, The First of May in New York City – Moving Out. Wood engraving. New-York Historical Society Library
Can you imagine the chaos in New York City if everyone’s leases expired on the same day, forcing everyone into the streets with all their belongings, jostling to find new apartments? Well, it happened, and it sounds like a nightmare. It used to be that on February 1, landlords would notify their tenants of what their new rent would be at the end of the quarter. They had until May 1 to search other residences for better deals, when at 9am all leases would expire simultaneously and everyone would start moving at the same time.
The practice proves that as long as there have been New Yorkers, there have been greedy New York landlords. One New York Times article from 1854 tells the story of Signor Cristadoro, a hairdresser at the Astor House: “He took the shop, during the hard times of 1842, on a lease of five years at $1,300 per annum. In 1847, the lease was renewed for seven years at $1,500. Notice was served on him a few days since that from and after the 1st of May, the rent would be $3,750!” Sound familiar?
The practice began to fade in the 1920s, as resistance to the lease laws grew, and by WWII many moving companies couldn’t even find enough men to keep up with demand. The post-war housing shortage and rent control laws ended May Day moving for good by 1945, though many commercial leases still run out on May 1, a remnant of the time.