9. The Rocking Chair Riots in Madison Square Park

Madison Square Park
Free seating in Madison Square Park.

New York City has been the site of many serious protests that have incited large-scale change, but in 1901, a protest over something frivolous occurred in Madison Square Park. At this time, an English businessman named Oscar Spate convinced the Parks Commissioner to let him pay the city $500 annually to place 200 cushioned rocking chairs in Madison Square Park, Union Square, and Central Park, and then charge New Yorkers five cents to use them. He got the idea from London and Paris, whose parks sometimes followed this practice of charging pedestrians for seating, and he also wanted to discourage homeless residency in the park. Spate’s rocking chairs even replaced free benches in shady locations.

When a July heat wave occurred, the pedestrians of Madison Square Park refused to pay to sit in the shade and even deliberately went there to sit in the rocking chairs without paying. The police got involved when 1,000 men and boys chased the chairs’ attendant from the park and broke the rocking chairs. The great “Rocking Chair Riots of 1901 lasted several days, and that same month, the Parks Commissioner canceled the five-year contract with Spate. A 10,000-person celebration with fireworks ensued. A determined Spate took the Parks Commissioner to court for ending the contract, but the judge didn’t force the public to pay for seating. In fact, the Evening Journal then asked for an injunction against such paid chairs, causing Spate to finally relinquish his cause. Spate also sold the chairs to Wanamaker’s Department Store, where they were advertised as “Historic Chairs.”