By Laurie Lewis
In this summer of record-shattering heat worldwide, let’s remember another hot summer over a century ago. For more than a week in 1901, the temperature in Manhattan soared to 99 degrees or higher. Then as now on a hot day, New Yorkers sought relief in the city’s parks. However, the tree canopy was much less dense then, as seen in the picture of Madison Square Park below.
Scene from a postcard of Madison Square Park in 1906, five years after the Rocking Chair Riots
That park became the scene of heated protests during the summer of 1901. A businessman named Oscar Spate paid the city for a permit to place rocking chairs in Madison Square Park. Anyone who wanted to sit in a rocker rather than on a park bench had to pay an attendant a nickel.
How people complained! “Seats in public parks should be free!” they cried. To make matters worse, the rocking chairs were in the shadiest areas, relegating cash-strapped park-goers to the sun-drenched benches.
In protest, some people sat in the rockers but refused to pay. Others forked over a nickel, then smashed their assigned chair. Teenagers heckled the money collectors.
When the attendants got rough with the protesters, the backlash was startling. A large group—perhaps as many as a thousand men and boys—chased one of Spate’s attendants into the posh Fifth Avenue Hotel across from the park, shouting “Lynch him!” as they pursued the frightened man.
No picture is available of the actual rocking chairs. They probably resembled these, from a 1900 catalogue. They were painted green.
The protests, which were dubbed the Rocking Chair Riots, continued for several days. Only one thing could end the upheavel, and it finally happened. The city revoked Spate’s permit.
Spate must have been furious. He had paid for a long-term contract, and the rocking chairs cost a pretty penny. Spate had thought he would more than recoup his investment with the nickel-a-seat fare.
Ever the businessman, Spate sold some of the rocking chairs to Wanamaker’s Department Store. The store advertised them as “historic chairs.”
Incidentally, rocking chairs soon reappeared in the park. They bore a prominent label: FREE.
Over the years, New York innovators have come up with ways to beat the heat.
Read about these and other inventive New York ideas in New York City Firsts: Big Apple Innovations That Changed the Nation and the World. Click here to see the complete contents of the book.
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