Introduction

It's hard to get a handle on a hobo. That's part of his character: he's hard to pin down, no address, no strings attached, free as the wind at his heels.

The hobo exists as a literary and cultural character, part of our western mythology and our enduring romance with freedom: he's a singer of song, a ribald teller of tales, riding the rails with the boxcar blues. While he exists in that mythology as well as in a hobo culture maintained in contemporary hobo conventions and literature, the formation of his character came in the years between The Civil War and World War Two. This site seeks the hobo: who he was and where he came from, what he means and where he went.

Media has both vilified and mythologized the hobo. As a vagrant and a social pariah, he was legislated against and imprisoned; more benevolent citizens considered him in need of reform and public assistance. Images in cartoons and early film portrayed a comical - if not desperate - character, always optimistic but terminally unlucky. Meanwhile, tramp autobiographies romanticized his life on the road and his quintessential American pioneer spirit. In sum, the public has been made quite aware of the hobo, but has perhaps remained by and large ignorant to the reality of his existence.

By most serious study, the hobo was an unskilled migratory laborer, an itinerant and seasonal worker. He was mostly white, American born, and able bodied. He was born of the American drive westward, the opening of industry in the West in the latter half of the 19th century. He was born on the railroads that carried him from cities where he congregated to the far reaches of the country where he worked to earn a "stake". The hobo was a member of the 'bottom end' of the industrial work force, filling the gaps in industrial and seasonal labor's stops and starts. In reality, the hobo was a by-product of the rapid industrialization of the country in the half-century beginning at the close of the Civil War.

This project explores both the economic causes that 'created' the hobo and the subsequent hobo subculture that grew out of his marginalized social existence. Framed in three sections set against the backdrop of three world's fairs (1876, 1893, and 1939), the hobo's birth, growth, and demise are laid out using images, excerpts from contemporary literature, and social studies.

    THE MACHINE AGE explores the economic life that created vast wandering armies of unemployed men, most often called tramps.
    HOBOHEMIA delves into the subculture that developed within that tramping class, a subculture that drew distinctions within its ranks, one of which was the hobo.
    THE WORLD OF TOMORROW touches on the flood of transients that hit the road during the Great Depression and the hobo's simultaneous departure from the 20th century.

Keeping in mind the wandering kind, the chapters are designed to be self-contained; that is, one might start at either end of the line and still get a view. Of course, heading straight out makes a more well-rounded tale. Any way you go, you can always return home and get your bearings by clicking on the icon at the bottom of each page.



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