Rocking Chair Riots of 1901 in Madison Square Park

New York City has seen its fair share of civil unrest. One of them, however unlikely, was caused by rocking chairs and took place in Madison Square Park.

The upscale Madison Square Park neighborhood, located in front of the posh Fifth Avenue Hotel, teamed with elegantly dressed and well heeled elites. One day in 1901, a businessmen named Oscar F. Spate saw an opportunity for procuring a buck. The idea was based both on the natural human desire to rest one’s tired body in a comfortable chair combined with the lack of an equal desire to share seating arrangements with lower-ranking members of society.

Mr. Spate arranged a deal with the city to place comfy rocking chairs in Central Park and Madison Square Park that would be made available for a modest fee of five cents per sitting body. This highly undemocratic concept was met with resentment and righteous indignation by those who happened to lack the proper means to afford the chairs but nevertheless desired to be seated just as much as the next person. In order to protect the chairs from un-paying public, Spate hired special attendants—a move which led to clashes between the hired hands and unruly citizens attempting to sit for free.

The problem was compounded by the heat wave of 1901—one of the longest the city had ever experienced—during which the temperature in Manhattan hit at least 99 degrees every day for over a week straight. Prior to air-conditioning, public parks were the only places where citizens could cool down and regain strength. Problematically, not only did parks not have enough public benches, but most of those benches in Madison Square Park were located in the open sun while the desirable shady spots were occupied by Spate’s paid chairs.

As an act of protest, some people actually went so far as paying for a chair, only to immediately break it down to pieces. One of the attendants, after attempting to remove a non-paying boy from a chair, had to run for his life to the safety of the Fifth Avenue Hotel when a mob of one-thousand men proceeded to chase the poor soul with the war-like cries of “Lynch him!”

The situation escalated two days later when the chair skirmishes erupted into a full-on rocking chair riot. It all started with one weary, overheated young man who refused to yield to the demand to either pay or vacate his comfortable, shady place of rest. His right to stay seated was vocally supported by a sizable, irritable, overheated crowd demanding equal sitting rights, free of charge. The struggle got physical as unruly members of the crowd started expropriating the chairs and threatening attendants. The police rushed over, but to no avail—the crowd was too large to handle. The uprising soon ended in the complete and utter success of the public: the Parks Commissioner canceled the five-year contract with Spate. A 10,000-person celebration ensued, with victory being sealed when the NY Supreme Court issued an injunction forbidding anyone to charge money for park seating.

In a final attempt to monetize his chairs, the relentless Spate sold some of them to Wanamaker’s Department Store under the label of “Historic Chairs.” The rest of the chairs were left in the parks with the humane and democratic sign, “FREE.”

As for Oscar F. Spate—the chair riot apparently wasn’t the most colorful episode of his life. Prior to the “chair” saga, he divorced his wife on the grounds that she turned out to be a man and later ended up in jail for some of his shady “business deals.” What a shame it was for him to find out, while incarcerated, that after his mother’s death he had inherited more than a million.

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