The rocking-chair riot that riled up New Yorkers

OscarspateOscar Spate (right) was a shady British businessman with a crazy plan in spring 1901.

He’d pay the parks commissioner $500 for the right to put 200 green rocking chairs in Central Park and Madison Square Park.

He’d charge 5 cents a seat to park attendees who wanted to sit in his cane-bottomed chairs rather than a stiff park bench. Hired attendants would make sure sitters paid up.

This idea actually got the go-ahead from the parks commissioner. It may have been because Spate claimed that the great parks in Europe had chairs for rent. Or perhaps the commissioner was worried about the homeless who had increasingly begun occupying city parks, scaring away many visitors.


Paying for seating, he may have reasoned, was the only way to clear derelicts from these two parks and bring back residents, according to The Flatiron, by Alice Sparberg Alexiou.

While the placement of these rocking chairs for hire in Central Park didn’t appear to ruffle many feathers, the chairs in Madison Square Park ticked people off.


Newspapers picked up the story of two-tiered seating, and New Yorkers made a point of purposely sitting in the rocking chairs and refusing to pay attendants, arguing that it was a free country.

When a heat wave struck in July, tempers really flared. “The parks still had free benches, but the privately operated chairs seemed to occupy all the shady areas,” wrote Michael Pollan in the New York Times in 2006.

Madisonsquareparkingfbruno:wikiIn Madison Square Park, “an estimated 1,000 men and boys chased Thomas Tully, a chair attendant, into the Fifth Avenue Hotel with cries of ‘Lynch him!’ after Mr. Tully upended a nonpayer from his rocker and slapped a boy who was heckling him.”

Two days later, Spate’s permit was revoked. Ten thousand people crowded into Madison Square Park to celebrate the decision—and sit in his chairs.

Ever the businessman, Spate eventually sold them to Wanamaker’s and billed them as historic artifacts!

The above photo shows the modern Madison Square Park, with egalitarian benches [ingfbruno/wiki]

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One Response to “The rocking-chair riot that riled up New Yorkers”

  1. NYC’s Great “Rocking Chair Riots” of 1901 In Madison Square Park | Untapped Cities Says:

    […] Oscar Spate, who caused the rocking chair riots in New York City. Image via Ephemeral New York […]

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