The girls leading New York’s maypole dances

Depending on your age and social class, May Day in the New York of a century ago meant either labor demonstrations or maypoles.

For kids, especially little girls, maypoles were the thing. These tall wood poles, symbolic of trees, were decorated with strips of ribbon, which each girl would hold while moving in a circle around the pole.


This rejoicing of the return of spring has its roots in Northern European cultures. Since so many New Yorkers came from this part of the world at the time, the tradition carried over.


Central Park was a popular site for Maypole dances. But the neighborhood parks springing up at the time also hosted them, usually for poorer kids with much less decorative poles.

Their pole isn’t as fancy and instead of ribbon they’re using string, but these girls in Seward Park in 1890 refused to be left out of the tradition.


Maypole processions were a common sight in city neighborhoods, and they were led by girls, as this New York Times article from 1886 explains:

“On the morning of the eventful day the May Queen, decked out in her summer best and her hair garlanded with flowers, leads a procession of her associates to the park,” wrote the Times.

Maypoleeastside1898The May Queen was picked by popular vote in the neighborhood.

“Her especial favorite among the small boys, graciously permitted to accompany the party, carries the May pole.”

“The parents of some of the children accompany the party ostensibly to keep the peace, but in reality because they enjoy themselves fully as much as the children do.”

“Throughout the month of May, these little parties are a familiar sight on the streets.”

[Top image: NYPL; second, Bain Collection, LOC; third and fourth, NYPL]

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7 Responses to “The girls leading New York’s maypole dances”

  1. trilby1895 Says:

    I am not sure about this but wasn’t Seward Park in the vicinity of the Five Points? It is poignant that it was not only wealthy, expensively-dressed little girls who participated in Maypole ceremonies; this is especially beautiful.

  2. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Right, Seward Park was close to what was left of Five Points, still a poor area (see the ramshackle house in the background in the photo). I love that these little girls managed to make a maypole and have a maypole dance of their own.

  3. kbsalazar Says:

    As late as the mid 1960s there were still massed spring folk dance festivals in the boroughs. My 5th grade class participated in one at (possibly) Prospect Park with other public school groups from all over Brooklyn, NY. After some square dances, a troika, a tarantella, some line dancing, a Greek circle dance, and several others, the finale was Maypole dancing. There were easily 50 of the things all dancing at the same time, each one decorated with crepe paper flowers made by its school’s arts and crafts program. It was quite a sight.

  4. jon phillips Says:

    Hi- I think that it is well worth pointing out that among the legacies of English Common Law to New York was the fact that the original “May Day” was synonymous with “Moving Day” as renting leases were commonly timed to expire on midnight April 30th of each year and by statute defaulted to 9AM on May 1st in lieu of an existing lease by an act of NY State’s Legislature. Therefore annual rents were often timed accordingly. Moving Day /aka Rent Day, persisted until the Emergency Housing Act that became Rent Control at the end of World War II. This eliminated the landlord hold-over eviction free-for-all, as it provided a statutory body that could memorialize new rates and authorize lease continuation by statute. To this day, this is a very little known or appreciated phenomena, due in no small part to the efforts of the real estate industry to diminish its significance or visibility in the media. As a historian of real estate and the history or rent and housing regulation and the politics that have always accompanied the industry, I find it of great interest. A small reminder of how not all things past are left in sorrow.

    May Day/Rent Day – set in motion far greater chaos and motion in New York than a few innocent girls circling the maypole or firebrands in Tompkins or Union Square parks.

    Moving day traumas in the big city were a favorite feature in Punch and Harper’s Weekly. And cut across a number of class lines as the affluent as well as the poor and working class were confronted with the dreaded “Moving Day.”

    May Day moving also was a bonanza for the cartmen (the forerunner to the Teamsters Union) as they were the authorized/licensed movers within London and New York respectively. Crazy as the concept of having all leases expire on the same day, having moving companies expected to deal with it is clearly crazier still. The common law status of cartmen dated to the middle ages where the narrow gauge wagons necessary to negotiate walled cities enjoyed a monopoly of access for moving goods internally. Farmers or transport wagons had to give up their goods at the city gates. Pre-elevator in five floor walk ups in May must have held a special significance.

    We still see peak days in the real estate industry, around the end and beginning of school years, naturally, when a vague analog of the original primal “May Day” takes place.

    It is likely little wonder in the popular consciousness that more pleasant association with the coming of May have displaced, or ‘evicted’ collective memories of “Moving Day/May 1.” But, it underlines the legacy of New York as a ‘renter’s city’ where 70% of the electorate is still in the renting class and 30% or less own- exactly the inverse in the rest of most of the nation.

    Here are some images to share that you might enjoy – and you might still be able to dig up some signage that alludes to “May Day Storage.” -Jonathan W. Phillips

    Date: Mon, 4 May 2015 03:21:12 +0000 To:

  5. Pat Pyke Harris Says:

    In the 1940s, when I went to P.S. 94 on 68th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, I remember going to Central Park with my teacher, Mrs. Pratt, and my class and happily dancing around the maypole. The great picture above brings back so many happy memories of my childhood.

  6. justin Says:

    Very interesting. I’ve seen pics of Maypoles before. Had no clue until today what they were. Thanks!

  7. Beth Says:

    The opening of the Odd Couple TV show had a brief shot of the two of them at at Central Park maypole dance. Too bad it’s still not done there.

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