Imagine Every Cincinnati Household Moving on the Same Day

Moving Day was a hair-brained local tradition for almost 100 years.

Spend a few hours poring over the old city directories, and you will quickly conclude that Cincinnatians changed addresses frequently. It’s rare to find the same person in the same building from directory to directory. You may be amazed to learn that most of Cincinnati not only moved from year to year, but most households moved on exactly the same day.

The Cincinnati Post April 22, 1924

Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

From from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s, April 1 was known as Moving Day in Cincinnati. Here is The Cincinnati Enquirer [March 31, 1866]:

“In spite of the general disagreeableness of the day, there were yesterday, evident signs of the near approach of the First of April, which, we believe, stands, by common consent, in the city calendar, as general ‘moving day.’ Furniture on sidewalks, furniture piled on wagons and in drays, spoke yesterday of time being improved, and the much-dreaded transfer already being made by the advanced line of the great army of ‘movers.’ ”

And, 65 years later, here is The Enquirer [March 29, 1931] again:

“In addition to being All Fools Day, April first for years has been the date of the renters’ annual hegira. In other words, it is ‘moving day.’ ”

In a city the size of Cincinnati, the logistics of this mass migration on a single day complicated life and frazzled the nerves of the populace. Or, to be honest, half the populace, specifically the feminine half. A multitude of cartoons and humorous squibs attest that the bulk of moving-day drudgery fell on women, while men endeavored to spend a long day at the office, or at the club. In 1879, an Enquirer wag sarcastically bemoaned the travails of the husband on Moving Day:

“Work! Well, I should say so! Git up in the mornin’ before breakfast, sit around till it’s ready, then eat an’ off down town after a wagon. No mortal man ever finds a wagon without hoofin’ round a whole square, an’ jest this kind of work is knockin’ years and years of usefulness out of some of our best young men. Well, after the doggoned wagon is found, you must give the driver your old as well as your new address, and that’s enough to break an ordinary man’s back.”

Why did everyone relocate at the same time? It seems that Cincinnati landlords scheduled all of their leases to expire on March 31. Consequently, all of their tenants knew that a new lease—undoubtedly at a higher rate—would kick in on April 1. But that wasn’t the only reason for domestic wanderlust. According to The Cincinnati Post [May 1, 1920]:

“Some families were forced to move because of the expiration of leases. Others succumbed to spring fever and its accompanying desire for new environment.”

Given the heavy demand, Cincinnatians on the move had to take whoever was willing to move them and, because almost all the moves occurred on one day, most men with wagons were far from professionals. April 1 was often the only day each year they moved households. In fact, most of Cincinnati’s movers were teamsters for the breweries or saloons, rag-and-bone men, or junk haulers. Consequently, damaged goods were an expected consequence of every move. Some observers estimated that three moves did as much damage to a household as a fire. Most professional moving companies got their start as moving and storage companies. The seasonal storage of household goods kept vehicles and drivers busy in the off-season.

The Cincinnati Post May 1, 1909

Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

As a growing city, Cincinnati suffered perennial housing shortages, so Moving Day ramped up the competition for available domiciles. Hopeful tenants, according to The Post [February 25, 1920], swarmed moving wagons to ask where the mover’s load had come from, expecting to find a vacant house or apartment waiting.

“Others, masters of strategy, lay in wait at offices of moving concerns, according to John B. Wolke, real estate dealer. Thus they find out who is going to move and get to the house before the moving vans.”

Residents in search of new housing arrangements scanned the newspapers for announcements of promotions or divorces or similar sorts of life changes that resulted in other people moving. Sometimes this reconnaissance was faulty:

“A resident of Walnut Hills sent his carpets out to be cleaned several days ago. A passing flat hunter, seeing the carpets going out, presumed somebody was moving. He rushed to rent the place.”

By the 1930s, the concentration of households moving on one single day was beginning to fade. The Enquirer [March 29, 1931] explained that the cost of moving was rising and the market was changing:

“Stabilized rents and the tendency of landlords to more fully cater to the wants of the tenant also will have a lot to do with diminishing the number of movers.”

Beginning in the early 20th century and enduring through World War II, many people simultaneously observed May 1 as Moving Day. That was the long-standing annual migration in New York City, so some tenants and landlords took their cue from the East Coast. A Cincinnati Post cartoon from 1909 shows a maladroit mover from the “Smashem Transfer Company” scheduling jobs for May 1. A 1920 item in The Post referred to May 1 as “traditional moving day.”

By 1941, The Enquirer reported that a trend toward staggered leases and efforts to “persuade the public to adopt more sane and sensible moving habits” had led to diminished demand for moving on a single day.

No matter what the day, there was general agreement that moving was a pain. A Post reporter filed a story [April 16, 1910] recounting his own adventures on Moving Day that year and concluded:

“Just take a referendum of men who’ve moved in the season now at its height. And rises there a man to say that the transformation of a flat-dweller to a house-dweller, or vice versa, is along a path that’s rosy? Nay, none!”

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