In Search of the Hobo

The Machine Age

It's the summer of 1876 and celebrations abound. Philadelphia, the birthplace of the nation, hosts the Centennial Exposition, an International Fair to which nations bring their wares and trades for display and competition: a "friendly" cultural war. It's especially symbolic that America hosts this year: she's 100 years old, a great experiment that has finally been proven - and tested; it's barely 10 years after a devastating Civil War threatened to tear the union asunder.

The fair centers on Machinery Hall, 13 acres of mechanisms, gadgets, and devices: power looms, lathes, sewing machines, presses, pumps, toolmaking machines, axles, shafts, wire cables (of the sort with which the Roeblings would build Brooklyn Bridge), and locomotives.1Here for the first time are displayed the telephone, the typewriter, and most impressive of all, the 30-foot high Corliss Double Walking-Beam Steam Engine that powers the entire hall of mechanisms....
On opening day, the hall was full of people, but dead silent as President Ulysses S. Grant and the Emperor Dom Pedro of Brazil climbed up on the engine platform and hit the levers that allowed steam into the cylinders. The engine hissed and the floor trembled. Then, the huge walking beams slowly started moving up and down, feeding the giant flywheel which spun around, gaining momentum and storing energy. Then, belts started moving, and shafts and pulleys started turning as power went out into the hall. The amount of activity in the hall boggled people's minds. The New York Herald, the Sun, and the Times all printed their daily editions in the hall. Machines started sewing, pins got stuck into paper, wallpaper printed, logs were sawed.2

Many in the Hall thought to have witnessed a miracle, a machine coming to life, indeed bringing life to other machines. Technology, thought some, would be a civilizing force, "driving out superstition, poverty, ignorance."3

But Machinery Hall, indeed the Exposition itself, represented a contradiction, a new reality for the nation. For along with the estimated 9 million visitors who came to view the Exposition in Philadelphia arrived thousands of unemployed looking for work. There - as in much of the nation - they found a depressed economy, little work, and a police force determined to maintain "a city beautiful" for the celebration. For the nation was in the midst of the first great depression of the Industrial Age.

What began in 1873 with the failure of Jay Cooke and Company and subsequent Wall Street Collapse was a decade - indeed a half century - of countless strikes, unemployment and labor unrest as workers struggled to keep pace with the demands of industrial capitalism. For the rest of the century and then some, the country would wrestle with the human costs of industrialization.
While [the machine] inspired confidence in some quarters, it also provoked dismay, often arousing hope and gloom in the same minds. For, accompanying the mechanization of industry, of transportation, and of daily existence, were the most severe contrasts yet visible in American society, contrasts between "progress and poverty" (in Henry George's words), which seemed to many a mockery of the republican dream, a haunting paradox.4

Such begins the story of the tramp, an unwelcome consequence of the new industrial order, of a new economy in which many men found insecure employment, often far from home, employment subject to worldwide market fluctuations and economics. This tramp, this new social problem, is the forefather of the American hobo and so the story begins with him.

The Tramp Problem