Moving Day in the 19th Century

This past weekend, I helped one of my sons move apartments. He reserved his apartment building’s service elevator, borrowed several dollies to wheel things in and out, and rented a U-Haul. He is young and without much furniture, so we were done by 4:30.

The adventure made me think about Julia Wilbur, her family, and thousands of other people moving in the 1800s.

A period cartoon pictured the “joys” of moving day in New York City, 1831.

A period cartoon pictured the “joys” of moving day in New York City, 1831.

Moving happened a lot.

We have a rosy (mis)conception that families stayed in one place from one generation to the next. Beyond the obvious moves related to immigration, Americans changed locations often, usually for economic reasons.

Julia Wilbur lived in at least 14 places from 1844 to 1858—with various family members and in boarding situations. Two of her brothers, both in economically unstable, also moved, while her more well-off siblings more or less stayed put.

In the book Made in America, sociologist Claude Fischer wrote, “Typically, an elite of merchants, doctors, manufacturers, financiers, and, in the countryside, farmers with large holdings formed the leading circles in American communities….But those images hide our view of most rural and small-town Americans, who were transients.”

In New York City, May 1 was the usual day that leases ended. A post on the Brick Underground website describes the chaos and exploitation that occurred on what became a mass moving day.

Renting was common.

The homesteaders who could get their 160 acres from the government and become land owners were lucky (assuming the land was productive, the weather cooperative, etc.). For many people, home ownership was an unattainable dream, especially in the first part of the century without bank mortgages. Landlords could be a real pain.

On October 5, 1888, for example, Julia Wilbur wrote in her diary:

Stovepipe issue, complained, Health official says that pipe complies with the law, so the nuisance will not be abated. What shall we do? Must we move this fall or submit to this outrage?

The earliest home ownership rates that I could find from the Census was from 1900, at 46.5 percent, versus about just over 66 percent in 2000. (As an aside, it dipped to 43.6 percent in 1940, i.e. after the Depression and leapt to 55 percent by 1950, in the post-war building boom.)

People hired movers.

Julia Wilbur specifically wrote about hiring cart men to move her belongings from one boarding house to another in Washington. They did not operate moving companies as we know them, but were men who had a wagon or three with which they could offer their labor and transport. Usually her places were furnished, but there were trunks of clothes and keepsakes to transfer from one place to another.

People who moved out west had the covered wagons to move their essentials. But people who moved from city to city had to sell as many of their belongings as they could. Either way, people often sold items in their old places (often a loss) and then had to start anew.

Moving often meant a final good-bye.

When the distance was great and the financial situation precarious, a move to another city or state most likely meant friends and family would never see each other again. They could perhaps exchange letters but they would never see an image, or touch the face of, a loved one again.

Print Friendly and PDF