Tramps and Hobos

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The American tramp is a figure that established itself in the 1870s with unexpected suddenness in America's public consciousness. While itinerant laborers and the wandering poor had been part of American life since colonial days, tramping as a mass population movement was an unprecedented phenomenon that sent tens of thousands of men on the road. There were attempts to differentiate between tramps (migratory nonworkers) and hobos (men who traveled in search of work), but there is no consensus on the precise characteristics of these terms. Sociohistorical studies have shown that tramps were predominantly white, American-born, unskilled laborers between the ages of twenty and forty, who traveled on foot but more often used the railroads to cover the distances they traveled. As to the number of tramps in the United States, there are no reliable statistics. In 1877 the Hartford Courant estimated that there were 100,000 tramps in the country. In 1906 and 1911 individual observers spoke of 350,000 and 500,000 vagrants nationwide.

Contemporary commentators attempted to explain the explosive growth of the number of mobile homeless people with reference to the effects of the Civil War, which, in their view, had removed men from their normal lives, accustomed them to the rigors of out-door life, and implanted in them notions of extended mobility. From the vantage point of history, however, it has become clear that the spectacular rise in the number of tramps during the period between the 1870s to the 1920s coincided with the industrial transformation of the urban United States. With the growth of industrial capitalism, America became more vulnerable to the effects of economic crises. The financial panic of 1873, which resulted from the failure of Jay Cooke and Company, was felt throughout the 1870s and sent thousands of workers on the road searching for jobs. Similarly devastating effects followed the deep and tragic depression that lasted from 1893 to 1897.

Paradoxically, however, the existence of a large number of geographically mobile men in search of work also had a positive impact on America's economy. At a time when the United States was involved in building a national infrastructure of monumental dimensions, the fluid labor supply was an essential prerequisite for the construction of the major transportation networks. It also guaranteed that the seasonal demands in the various industrial, extractive, and agricultural locations of the economy were efficiently met.


Although urban enterprises and railroad companies profited from the work done by the migratory seasonal laborers, the American public referred to them as the "tramp evil" or the "tramp nuisance." Rural and urban communities reacted with antipathy and fear against the arrival of large numbers of strangers who were seen as a serious threat to life, property, morality, and social order. The tramp's characteristic lifestyle presented an open challenge to a Victorian ideology in which stability, hard work, and the nuclear family were highly valued. As single men removed from the social control of the mainstream communities, the tramps led lives that differed significantly from the approved middle-class standard. The look they cultivated, the particular rules and customs they followed, and the jargon they used helped to divide them from the public at large. Their subculture was characterized by what the average citizen interpreted as indicators of social deviance, such as laziness, a lack of cleanliness, alcoholism, and homosexuality. In their endeavor to protect the citizens, communities ultimately resorted to legal action and passed vagrancy and tramp ordinances that were designed to keep the undesirable element at bay. It was not until the final years of the nineteenth century that reformers began to understand that the existence of a large migrant population was the result of economic processes and could not be blamed upon a pathologic unwillingness to work or an irrational and irresponsible psychic state called "wanderlust."

It is interesting to note that the widespread aversion against the geographical mobility of a substantial number of individuals occurred at a time when movement was a ubiquitous and defining feature of American culture. Especially in the nineteenth century, life in the United States was characterized by major population shifts brought about by an ever-growing number of immigrants, by an internal migration from rural regions to urban environments, and by a continuous westward advance. For most Americans, these historical phenomena evoked positive associations. Mobility was an obvious prerequisite for the territorial expansion the United States, which had been defined as the country's Manifest Destiny. It created political power and economic opportunities for individuals and the nation alike and became a cornerstone for a number of ideological themes, including democracy, progress, and modernity.


Mobility is a fundamental feature in human societies and manifests itself in a variety of ways. Those forms of movement that are imbued with special cultural meaning—pilgrimages, quests, conquests, explorations, travel—frequently became the object of paintings, songs, literary writings, and other forms of artful representation. Classic examples from world literature and mythology include such mobile characters as Ulysses, Cain, the Wandering Jew, Don Quixote, and others. Medieval writing contains numerous episodes featuring knights-errant, troubadours, and wandering scholars. Romantic literature abounds with the imagery of motion, and its protagonists are often wanderers who symbolize a range of positive characteristics, including optimistic visions for the future, educational desires, and an opposition to a mercantile world with its confining rules.

A similarly positive view of the peripatetic existence can also be found in American literature in the years before the age of the industrial tramp began in the 1870s. Tales and songs were told about folk heroes like Daniel Boone who were almost constantly on the move looking for "elbow room," and vernacular characters such as Simon Suggs, the creation of humorist Johnson Jones Hooper, proclaimed that "it is good to be shifty in a new country" (Hooper, p. 12). Walking was also positively portrayed in the writings of Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman. Both authors celebrated the freedom found in aimless wandering; Thoreau wrote in his journal that "it is a great art to saunter." Bayard Taylor's tremendously popular travel book Views A-Foot (1846) derived its appeal to a high degree from the romantic visions of tramping he set forth in this narrative. In real life, the physical exercise gained in walks or rambles was regarded as beneficial to a person's health. In 1894 a contributor to Century Magazine recommended that Americans walk more because it would make them "bigger, happier, healthier, and tougher" (C. M. S., p. 959).

Despite the existence of a literary tradition featuring wayfaring protagonists and a social reality that provided countless situations and models for intensive study, the tramp phenomenon was slow to register in the world of writing. The earliest written responses came in local newspapers, which reported about the various activities that the political bodies or the charitable organizations of individual communities initiated to deal with the problems resulting from the growing presence of transients in their neighborhoods. As the topic gained in urgency, periodicals of national reputation opened their pages to a variety of contributors who discussed the issue from different angles.

While journalists and public spokesmen of different persuasions addressed a subject that was of obvious relevance to late-nineteenth-century America, literary writers remained curiously silent on the topic. Although Stephen Crane (1871–1900) and other naturalists included the tramp together with other characters from the margins of society in their fictional depictions of life in America, there is no substantial body of literature focusing on tramp figures. In terms of the prevailing literary taste of the time, the tramp was simply not an appropriate subject.

Whatever measure one might use, there is no denying that the prevailing economic and social conditions forced the tramp into miserable living conditions. A realistic depiction of tramp life in literature would therefore have to address in detail unattractive and possibly offensive aspects of life in America, which would shed an unfavorable light on a country that liked to think of itself as especially favored by a divine providence. It would also force the writer to take a position in a highly controversial issue and thus make him or her vulnerable to negative reactions from readers and literary critics. According to their own testimony, the guardians of a public taste based on middle-class values were mainly concerned with protecting the large female readership. Since this group constituted the main market for fiction, a commercial aspect was obviously also involved in this issue. William Dean Howells (1837–1920) used his influential position as writer, editor, and critic to encourage his fellow writers "to concern themselves with the more smiling aspects of life" (Howells, p. 641). The tramp did not fit the preferred visions of America and was thus relegated a shadow existence in American letters and in sociohistorical research. This situation, according to some social historians, did not change until late in the twentieth century and may explain the relative lack of scholarly work in the field.

The first author to devote intensive and sustained attention to the tramp was Josiah Flynt (the penname of Josiah Flynt Willard, 1869–1907). His influential reports on tramp life appeared in periodicals such as Atlantic Monthly and Century Magazine and were widely read. Despite the journalistic coverage the tramp had by then received for more than ten years, Flynt claimed that "comparatively little is known about his real life and character" ("Life," p. 803). To fill the void, he conducted interviews with tramps and, choosing a participant-observer approach, he gained first-hand knowledge of his subject by living the tramp's life himself, both in the United States and in Europe. His attention, however, was focused not on "the enforced vagrant, but rather the man who wanders because he desires to, and prefers begging to working" ("Life," p. 803). It was a crucial decision because this limited perspective left out the socioeconomic dimensions of the issue and thus reduced its complexity.

As he enthralled the genteel readers of the prestigious magazines with scenes from life on the road, he led them into a strange and exotic world that actually existed not far from their homes but was far removed from the daily experience of their own sheltered, bourgeois lives. Although at times he titillated his audience with episodes of an adventurous life marked by harshness, violence, criminal behavior, and veiled sexual allusions, he left no doubt about his own attitudes toward this class of people. The texts he wrote showed him in agreement with the majority of his contemporaries: The tramp as beggar was a nuisance that needed to be eliminated. In Flynt's eyes, the origin of the problem lay both with the tramps, who were pathologically unwilling to work, and with the charitable people, whose generosity provided the basis for the tramps' continued existence.

Jack London (1876–1916) took a much different attitude toward the homeless migrants. Although his editor and friends advised him not to write about his own tramp reminiscences because his positive attitude toward the controversial figure might hurt the sales of his other books, London expressed himself on the subject both in his fiction and nonfiction. He became the major literary voice presenting the life of the American tramp at the turn of the twentieth century. Clearly informed by his socialist convictions, London's 1902 speech "The Tramp" identified the socioeconomic situation in America as the reason for the troubles of vagrancy. In it, London analyzed the reasons for and the effects of the existence of a "surplus labor army." He concluded that the tramp was the victim of a situation for which he bore no responsibility but was nevertheless forced into the position of "the scapegoat to our economic and industrial sinning" (p. 487).

London's best-known publication on the tramp is his pseudo-autobiographical book The Road (1907), in which the author collected, without much effort to achieve narrative unity, nine essays on life on the road that had been previously published in Cosmopolitan Magazine. It was an assortment of memories recalling various incidents from the time when London lived the life of a tramp in his younger years. Writing under financial pressure and severe time constraints, London failed to revise his material and contented himself with the role of a storyteller by jumbling a series of entertaining anecdotes with a folksy appeal. His loosely connected chapters highlight individual episodes featuring characteristic situations from the life of a tramp. The book is pervaded by an atmosphere of competition in which an ambitious protagonist strives to prove himself superior to other tramps and to the representatives of law and order. Despite London's political convictions, social commentary is slight in this volume, and the emphasis is mostly on the adventures of tramp life and youthful excitement.

London's literary work on the tramp was supplemented by the writings of now forgotten authors whose publications presented the figure of the tramp in a variety of formats, including sociological treatises and manifestos. Most authors chose the pattern of the adventure story, generally framed as autobiographical or pseudo-autobiographical accounts. Among these were titles such as Lee Harris's The Man Who Tramps (1878), Thomas Manning Page's Bohemian Life; or, The Autobiography of a Tramp (1884), and Leon Ray Livingston's Life and Adventures of A-No.1, America's Most Celebrated Tramp. Written by Himself (1908). The tone of these publications ran from a sharply critical attitude toward the subject to a justification or even celebration of a marginal, disdained existence and an explicit sense of pride in the conscious departure from a normative middle-class life.

Although Jack London dedicated The Road to Josiah Flynt, the two writers differed in their attitude toward the tramp. While London celebrated the freedom of life on the road, Flynt was critical of an existence that appeared to him as socially reprehensible behavior.

He has loafed, seen the country and green things, laughed in joy, lain on his back and listened to the birds singing overhead, unannoyed by factory whistles and bosses' harsh commands; and, most significant of all, he has lived. That is the point! He has not starved to death. Not only has he been care-free and happy, but he has lived! And from the knowledge that he has idled and is still alive, he achieves a new outlook on life; and the more he experiences the unenviable lot of the poor worker, the more the blandishments of the "road" take hold of him. And finally he flings his challenge in the face of society, imposes a valorous boycott on all work, and joins the far-wanderers of Hoboland, the gypsy folk of this latter day.

London, "The Tramp," in The Social Writings of Jack London, p. 485.

I must first explain just what I mean by a tramp. Some people think that he is simply a man out of work, a man willing to labor if he has the chance; and others, although admitting that he is not so fond of toil as he might be, claim that he is more a victim of circumstances than of his own perversity. Neither of these opinions seems to me to meet the case. According to my experience,—and I have studied the tramp carefully in over thirty States of the Union,—he is a man, and too often a boy, who prefers vagabondage to any other business, and in moments of enthusiasm actually brags about the wisdom of his choice. There are some exceptions, it is true, but by no means so many as is generally supposed. Not one tramp in fifty of those that I have met could say that he could find no work, and not over ten in a hundred could claim that they had never had a "fair chance in life."

Josiah Flynt, "What to Do with the Tramp?" Century Magazine 48, no. 5 (September 1894), p. 794.

Hobo songs were another source that provided insights into the life of the nation's transient population. Their thematic structure reflected the tramp's existence in its various forms. Fatalistic and sarcastic visions of life in America existed alongside songs about the pathos of the hobo condition. In spite of many disappointing and cruel experiences encountered on the road, the songs often portrayed the tramp as an optimist who never gave up his dreams about a mythical hobo paradise, a theme that is exemplified in one of the most famous titles, "The Big Rock Candy Mountain."

As the nineteenth century came to a close, the figure of the tramp had established itself most thoroughly in the field of popular entertainment. In the hands of numerous artists and performers, the sad and sometimes tragic circumstances of homelessness moved into the background and were superseded by humorous representations of the carefree aspects of tramp life on the vaudeville stage, in newspaper comic strips, and in early silent films. Beginning in the late 1890s, a large number of "tramp acts" were performed as entertaining comedy sketches that had a significant appeal for large audiences. Together with other popular figures of the time, the tramp became a comic character who provided innocent fun for middle-class urban vaudeville audiences of almost any racial or occupational background. As the vaudeville stage simplified the complex social phenomenon into a hilarious caricature, the national comic weeklies, Puck, Judge, and Life, produced and reproduced endless verbal and visual gags about the tramp's tattered clothes, his panhandling ways, his jargon, and other stereotypes associated with the figure. Dime publications such as Wehman Bros.' Tramp Jokes: Monologues and Recitations (1908) collected vaudeville's most popular lines and comic episodes and distributed them to a large audience for repeated and leisurely consumption in a private setting.

The humorous aspect of the tramp figure was also developed in the early comic strips, which frequently featured characters from the margins of American society. The tramp appeared most prominently in Happy Hooligan, a very successful series by Frederick Burr Opper (1857–1937) that first appeared in William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal in 1900 and ran for more than 30 years. The character of Happy, in Opper's words "a favorite son of misfortune" (Goulart, p. 172), was a hobo who was always down and out but persisted in looking on the bright side of life. This touching and ludicrous figure became a prototype for the "little man" in American humor, the unlucky individual overcome by the difficulties of life, yet irrepressible and cheerful in the face of never-ending challenges.

The situations, the paraphernalia, and the themes that audiences encountered on the vaudeville stage and on the pages of the nation's humor magazines and comic strips provided a starting point for the newly emerging film productions. This happened most prominently in the work of Charlie Chaplin (1889–1977), whose Little Tramp character became "one of the most widely recognized popular culture icons in cinema" (Cresswell, p. 130). The process of simplification that the tramp figure had undergone in the various forms of mass-produced humor was reversed in Chaplin's work. The actor transformed the figure into a complex character who could embody a broad range of meanings that were sometimes contradictory. As a protean modern character, Chaplin's tramp slid into any role that the necessities of an uncertain existence required of him. Chaplin's tramp retained the defining characteristics of worklessness and mobility, and quite often his actions were marked by pathos. But as clown, con man, and trickster located in the margins of normality, he highlighted the obstacles, absurdities, and tyrannies of middle-class life while resisting them with his comic subversiveness.

That the subject of the tramp kept its relevance in the years after 1920 is borne out by fact that academic studies of hobos as well as more or less authentic autobiographical material continued to appear. Joseph Stamper's Less than the Dust: The Memoirs of a Tramp (1931), Carl S. Schockman's We Turned Hobo: A Narrative of Personal Experience (1937), and Ben L. Reitman's Sister of the Road: The Autobiography of Box-Car Bertha (1937) offered personal insights into the life of the tramp. Other writers chose a more scientific approach. The Hobo: The Sociology of the Homeless Man (1923) by Nels Anderson proved an influential study. The Hobo's Hornbook: A Repertory for a Gutter Jongleur (1930) by George Milburn (1906–1966) collected and praised hobo songs as authentic American folklore. Godfrey Irwin compiled a dictionary entitled American Tramp and Underworld Slang (1931). This material was supplemented by the literary work of John Dos Passos (1896–1970), John Steinbeck (1902–1968), Jack Kerouac (1922–1969), and other writers who developed their own versions of the transient worker. With its connections to modern-day homelessness, the figure of the tramp has remained an uncomfortable topic in American culture.


This brief delineation of the various frameworks in which the tramp appeared shows that the figure holds a variety of possible meanings. In the early years, the image of the tramp was dominated by a cultural climate that constructed the figure as a low-down character unwilling to assume the responsibilities expected of a respectable citizen. Indolent, lazy, intemperate, a danger to personal property and public health, the tramp was seen as a threat to the fundamental values of American life. In this sense, he became the negative counterpart to the classic American hero figure who, at the end of the nineteenth century, had been enshrined in the American pantheon as explorer, pioneer, or successful businessman.

This position was sometimes balanced by a more compassionate attitude that regarded the tramp as a victim who was forced out of a secure life by unfortunate circumstances. Writing about tramp life from this perspective provided an opportunity to address the problems arising from a capitalist industrial society dependent on a large pool of cheap labor. The large number of unemployed or underemployed workers in a country of high ambitions appeared as a major contradiction to the belief in unlimited opportunity and called into question America's ability to provide for its citizens. In this respect, the very existence of the tramp seemed to mock the American ideal of mobility, which was at the heart of individual and national progress.

In contrast to the unfavorable view of the tramp expressed in these perspectives, another interpretation highlighted the desirable aspects of life on the road. This attitude was especially common among critics in the second half of the twentieth century, such as Frederick Feied and Kingsley Widmer, who emphasized the idea of the tramp as a counterculture hero engaged in a rebellion against the confinement of conventions and social responsibilities. They characterized the lifestyle of the tramp as that of a nonconformist in search of his own autonomy. In this process, the tramp accepted his own suffering as a necessary prerequisite for the freedom he craved, and his outsider status marked him as an opponent to the establishment and to traditional values. In his refusal to justify his existence in accordance with bourgeois terms, he insisted on his personal freedom in opposition to the bondage of paid labor. This sense of freedom also included visions of life beyond the domestic world of a nuclear family and the civilizing rule of women. Life on the road was a life in the company of men, which required courage and a variety of other so-called masculine skills. Viewed in this way, tramp life can be interpreted as a reaction against a socioeconomic system that emasculated men by forcing them to work in urban settings and imprisoned them by means of a tightly regulated industrial work schedule.

In conclusion, it is worth noting that American writers were reluctant to extract literary material from the frustrating social reality that was the tramp's substrate. While many of the books devoted to tramp life insist on the factuality of the descriptions by dutifully making reference to the specific features of trampdom, the degree of their accuracy remains doubtful. In fact, most of this material came from the pens of middleclass observers; hardly any of the alleged autobiographies were written by actual tramps. Most of these writers downplayed the reality of the socioeconomic conditions, which lay at the root of the mass industrial tramping, in favor of a romanticized portrait of a protagonist who established his identity by resisting the demands of an industrialized economy. Jack London's substantial intellectual and literary effort at establishing the subject notwithstanding, there seems to be a consensus among literary scholars that tramp fiction never fully matured. But regardless of how successfully the depictions of the tramp conformed to a literary ideal, the period from the 1870s to the 1920s (and beyond) shows an interesting spectrum of cultural responses to this disturbing character and to the conditions under which he led his marginal life. Further inquiry into this topic is much needed and will provide deeper insights into the way in which American culture struggled to accommodate a phenomenon that stood as a massive contradiction to its capitalist work ethic and rags-to-riches ideology.

See alsoMigration; Poverty


Primary Works

C. M. S. "Walking." Century Magazine 48, no. 6 (October 1894): 959.

London, Jack. Jack London on the Road: The Tramp Diary and Other Hobo Writings. Edited by Richard W. Etulain. Logan: Utah State University Press, 1979.

London, Jack. "The Tramp." In The Social Writings of Jack London, edited by Philip S. Foner, pp. 474–487. Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1964.

Secondary Works

Allsop, Kenneth. Hard Travellin': The Hobo and His History. New York: New American Library, 1967.

Anderson, Nels. On Hobos and Homelessness. Edited by Raffaele Rauty. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Browder, Laura. "Passing as Poor: Class Imposture in Depression America." In her Slippery Characters: Ethnic Impersonators and American Identities, pp. 171–201. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

Carden, Mary Paniccia. "The Hobo as National Hero: Models for American Manhood in 'Steam Train' Maury Graham's Autobiography." Autobiography Studies: A/B 11, no. 1 (1996): 93–108.

Cresswell, Tim. The Tramp in America. London: Reaktion, 2001.

Feied, Frederick. No Pie in the Sky: The Hobo as American Cultural Hero in the Works of Jack London, John Dos Passos, and Jack Kerouac. New York: Citadel Press, 1964.

Flynt, Josiah. "Life among German Tramps." Century Magazine 46, no. 6 (October 1893): 803–816.

Flynt, Josiah. Tramping with Tramps: Studies and Sketches of Vagabond Life. New York: The Century Co., 1899.

Goulart, Ron, ed. The Encyclopedia of American Comics. New York: Promised Land Productions, 1990.

Hooper, Johnson J. Some Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs. Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1845.

Howells, William Dean. "Editor's Study." Harper's Magazine 73 (September 1886): 641.

Inge, M. Thomas. "Charlie Chaplin and the Comics." In his Comics as Culture, pp. 59–67. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990.

Monkkonen, Eric H., ed. Walking to Work: Tramps in America, 1790–1935. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.

Phelps, Richard. "Songs of the American Hobo." Journal of Popular Culture 17, no. 2 (fall 1983): 1–21.

Seelye, John D. "The American Tramp: A Version of the Picaresque." American Quarterly 15, no. 4 (winter 1963): 535–553.

Widmer, Kingsley. The Literary Rebel. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1965.

Holger Kersten