Nothing incites the general public more than someone trying to charge for something that was once free. Yet that’s exactly what entrepreneur Oscar F. Spate tried to do in the New York City parks in the blistering summer of 1901.
It all started in Central Park on June 22, 1901, when a group of people spotted rows of bright green rocking chairs along the park’s mall. Usually in this same spot, stood rows of uncomfortable wooden hard benches, so it was a pleasure indeed for the park-goes to sit and rock and enjoy the wondrous summer day.
Suddenly, two broad-shouldered men approached the rocking-chair sitters. They wore identical gray suits and they carried black satchels with straps over their shoulders. The men in gray told the sitters that these were private chairs for rent, and that if they wanted to continue sitting they had to fork over five cents a day for the better seats, and three cents a day for seats that were not in as preferential a position in the park. Some people vacated their seats, but others paid. People who did neither were physically ejected from the seats. When they asked why, the men in gray said, “Them’s Mr. Spate’s chairs.”
This new phenomenon was covered extensively and very contentiously, in the following day’s daily New York City newspapers. And the man on the hot seat was the president of the Park Commission – one George C. Clausen.
It seemed that a few days earlier, Clausen had been visited in his official Park Commission office by a man named Oscar F. Spate. Spate seemed amiable enough, and he offered Clausen a proposition Clausen saw no difficulty in accepting. It seemed that Spate said he wanted to place comfortable rocking chairs in the parks throughout New York City. And for the privilege of doing so, Spate offered the city the tidy sum of $500 a year.
“They do this in London and Paris,” Spate told Clausen. “And it would undoubtedly be good for New York City.”
Clausen saw no problem with Spate’s line of thinking, so he readily agreed; albeit without first consulting with the other member of the Park Commission. As a result, Clausen graced Spate with a five-year contract, allowing Spate to place his rocking chairs in all the New York City parks. With the ink still not dry on his contract, Spate immediately ordered 6,000 chairs, costing about $1.50 each. If Spate’s projections were correct, these chairs would earn him an estimated $250-$300 a day.
An associate of Spate, who asked a newspaper reporter for anonymity, said that Spate had already invested $30,000 in his new venture. The reporter did the math and he came up with the rocking chairs only costing Spate around $9,500. Pray tell, where did the other $20,500 go?
Spate’s spokesman said nothing to enlighten the reporter.
“Well, there’s always expenses in things like this, you know,” he told the scribe.
The New York City press knew a story when it hit them in the face, so they managed to track down Spate in his offices in the St. James Building, on Broadway and 26th Street, near Madison Square Park. When questioned by the reporters, Spate became indignant.
“I’ll put in as many chairs as they will allow,” Spate told the reporters. “The attendants who collect the charges are in my pay. They will wear gray uniforms, and each will look after about fifty chairs, from 10 a.m. to 10 p. m. A five-cent ticket entitles the holder to sit in either a five-cent, or a three-cent chair in any park at any time during that day. But the holder of a three-cent chair can only sit in a three-cent chair.”
Spate also told the reporters he was doing the city a favor, since charging for the chairs would keep the undesirables (read – the poor) out of the parks, thereby keeping the parks sparkling clean and free of loiterers who leave a mess in their wake.
The outrage from the New York City press and from philanthropists came swift. Randolph Guggenheimer, the president of the Municipal Council, said he “saw no good reason for allowing private parties to occupy park grounds and make money through a scheme like this.” The New York City Central Federated Union sent a statement to the press denouncing both Spate and Clausen for their “hideous actions.” The New York Tribune wrote in an editorial, “This is only another instance of the hopeless stupidity of the present Park Commission.” The New York Journal also wrote an editorial defending the “rights of poor people to sit in public park.” However, the New York Times saw no problem in what Spate was doing, as long as “the prices were regulated properly.”
Park Commissioner Clausen tried to defend his actions by telling the press that there were always plenty of free benches for people to sit on, except, of course, on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. The New York Tribune pointed out that those were the days with the biggest demand for seats in the parks.