Wednesday, August 03, 2011


 Number One in a Series

I know what you've heard. I know what you've read in books written decades after the fact by people who never worked in the circus. This seems to me to be the most likely origin of the term "First of May"...


David Carlyon said...

Pat, many things begin in the full bloom of spring once May begins, not only ancient NYC leases — mentioned in my Dan Rice book — but also Communism's May Day celebration, Law Day, etc. Then there's the ancient English celebration of May Day, which this Wikipedia account says started the tradition of Moving Day.

None of that alters the likely etymology for "First-of-May" in circus: The first of May was when traveling shows tended to begin their tour, providing an easy way to date when a rookie "joined on." Starting around the first of May, he was a "First-of-May."

There seems to be little reason to connect a May 1 frenzy of moving to a circus rookie. That frenzy might be called a "circus" but why would it be attributed to a novice in the circus? Anyway, it was famously called "Moving Day," not "First of May."

My educated hunch is that "First-of-May" is 20th-century slang. I don't recall seeing it in 19th-century circus accounts or stories. If so, that would place it generations after May 1 was the notorious moving day in New York — and generations after that ancient NYC institution could have influenced circus slang.

Rik Gern said...

I don't know if that is the origin of the term or not, but it's an interesting speculation. In keeping with the wikipedia article on Moving Day, here's a link to a song of the same name by the banjoist Charlie Poole:

Charlie Poole

Landlord said this morning to me
'Give me your key, this lot ain't free
I can't get no rent out of you
Pack up your act and skidoo, you'
'I've been waiting till my Bill comes home
He's my honey from the honeycomb
He'll have money for he told me so this morning'

Because it's moving day, moving day
I rip the carpet up off the floor
Load your oil stove and out the door
Because it's moving day
Pack your bed quilts and get away
If you spend every cent you can live out in a tent
It's moving day

Moving day, moving day
I rip the carpet up off the floor
Load your oil stove and out the door
Because it's moving day
Pack your bed quilts and get away
If you spend every cent you can live out in a tent
It's moving day

Pat Cashin said...


My reason for the guess that "First-of-May" has it's origins in Moving Day is that it would be the date that New Yorkers got new neighbors...

"Here come those First-of Mays in 3-B."

Seeing as how many immigrant families passed through New York it's reasonable to assume that many European circus families were familiar with the phrase and the practice.

I often hear that it relates to the day that circuses traditionally started their seasons. We should check historical route cards and find out just how true that actually is.

David Carlyon said...

Shows didn't have route cards then but reports in 19C newspapers and surviving journals show that circuses closed their winter shows in cities and hit the road sometime around May 1. That makes sense because that was the time of year when mud from winter melt-off and spring rains had dried and made the roads passable again.

And again, I haven't seen "First of May" in 19th-century accounts. It certainly might be there; no one could read everything. But it sounds more like 20th-century slang.

Your speculation is interesting but is only speculation. Compare the folk etymology of "gringo": The tale that it came from Anglos in the mid-1800s singing "Green grow the lilacs" sounds plausible but historical evidence shows the word in use in Spain long before that.

In this case, Moving Day has nothing intrinsic to do with circus. European circus families would have come to the US to join circuses, not to get NYC apartments on a year's lease. Meanwhile the traditional origin story, of circuses starting tours around the first of May, fits exactly what we know of circus.

By the way, "first of May" can mean May 1. That's understandable; I've made it that specific myself, feeling the lure of having a single, romantic date. But "the first of May" also means sometime around the beginning of May, or roughly late April to mid-May. (E.g., "When did Cashin create new speculation about that circus slang?" "Oh, it was the first of August, 2011.")

Anonymous said...

Well here and there on circus sites you hear a whole different way of explaining it. In the old canvas days the circuseason started May 1. So newcommers first day on the show was the first of May. So no rookies, newbies or primatesbut simply" first of mays".