“House Hunting”

April 27, 1867

Thomas Nast

“House Hunting”

Holidays, Moving Day; Home Life; New York City, Home Life;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

New York City;

No caption

This Harper's Weekly cartoon by Thomas Nast dramatizes the annual house-hunting ritual in New York City.  For much of the nineteenth century, there was a chronic shortage of housing and, consequently, high rents in the rapidly growing metropolis.  This situation produced a mad scramble every spring by those who were losing leases or seeking improved accommodations to find new quarters.  All leases were effective beginning on May 1, making the formerly festive holiday of Mayday one of stress and strain as much of the city moved all at once, clogging the streets and shutting down businesses in Manhattan.

In the late 1840s, a Tenant League formed to unite renters against the "blighting curses" of "landlordism," and to demand that the city government enact housing regulations, such as rent control, a ban on basement apartments, and permission for an urban version of homesteading.  The Tenant League was unsuccessful, and the chaos of Moving Day continued.

"The annual misery," as Harper's Weekly termed it, did benefit one group besides the landlords.  In 1857, the newspaper endorsed the "idea ... of being moved by contract.  The contractor takes a sight of the old premises, makes himself master of its various positions and bearings, and then applies himself to a reproduction of the same effects in the new ... This is moving made easy ..."  In other words, hire what would become known as a "moving" company.  By 1859, the journal was reporting the financial rewards reaped by licensed cartmen on Moving Day.  

Clearly a source of frustration and tension, Harper's Weekly approached "the annual social earthquake" by encouraging patience and forbearance and by reminding readers of the least fortunate who would end up homeless.  Another way to cope was through humor.  Along with commentary, the paper published cartoons (like this one) and lighthearted verse on the subject almost every year (except during the Civil War).  In 1857, a columnist dryly observed:  "We are credibly informed that there are people in this city who have lived all their lives in the same house and have never moved.  Of what solid stuff these immovables are made we can not imagine, but we look upon them with something of the wonder and respect with which we should survey the Pyramids."

In an apt description, Harper's Weekly pointed out that house hunting was not limited to Moving Day on May 1.  "Would that one day could compass the horrors of moving!  Alas, no!  A month before the crisis preparations begin--to say nothing of all the 'house-hunting' necessary.  One after another the luxuries and comforts of home are withdrawn 'to be packed,' until ... there is scarcely ... a spot in the house which is not desolately bare.  This is but the beginning of sorrows."  The common use of quotation marks or italics for "house hunting" indicates that it was a newly-coined phrase at this time.

The article concludes:  "The house into which you move is found to be dirty to the last degree.  The purifying process is no light task ... But carpets and curtains are to be refitted; furniture to be set up; the broken articles mended or replaced.  Then the plumbing is sure to be out of order throughout the house, and generally nothing will coax a fire to burn in the range short of sending for the maker--who can not come for several days--and subjecting it to a thorough repairing. ... Skill and tact and good management will mitigate but not remove the evils clustering around the annual moving day."

Many of those experiences can be seen in Nast's cartoon (click on it for the enlarged format):  competition for housing, restrictions on the lessees, differing perspectives of landlords and tenants, crowding and privations on Moving Day, and the dismal reality of the new domicile.  

After pulling out of an economic depression in the late 1870s, construction in New York City expanded to provide more adequately for housing needs.  Tenants began moving less frequently, and the annual ritual subsided.  The last reference to Moving Day in Harper's Weekly occurs in 1877.

Robert C. Kennedy

“House Hunting”
July 14, 2024

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