The World of Tomorrow: From A Tramp To A KingThe hobo has not disappeared from the American cultural landscape. While his position in the economic order was phased out with America's ultimate shift to corporate capitalism and with social safety nets begun during the New Deal, the hobo lingers on in song, in legend, and at the Annual Hobo Convention, now claiming it's 101st year.
Part of what makes the hobo hard to find is the fact that he is so mythologized. Like many characters of our national history, his myth makes a better story than his reality. At the very least, it clouds his reality. Today he carries with him the banners of pioneer spirit and the romance of the rails; and yet he started out a pariah, hounded and beaten, chased out of town. In between, he became the clown.
Kenneth Allsop notes the difficulties in distinguishing the image from the real in the sense that recognition of an entity or meaning is often retrospective. It may be now "impossible to reconstruct how much of the hobo was self-made and how much was absorbed from popularized and mythological versions of him."1
As early as 1900, the year of the first hobo convention in Britt, Iowa, tensions existed between the 'real' hobo and those seeking to appropriate or exploit his character. Part of the hobo's story might then be the story of his incorporation into the media and into the public mind. What follows are but few examples of the hobo mythologized, for better or for worse.
In 1900, Britt, Iowa held a hobo convention as a way to promote their community and land it on the tourist and convention circuit. They had visions of thousands of spectators and the national press.
August 22, 1900: fife-and-drum corps in silly hobo costumes playing ragtime music; banners; reporters from Chicago, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Omaha; horse races; barbequed ox; baseball; roulette; many gallons of beer. In the election ceremony at the fairgrounds, Admiral Dewey was elected to the presidency and Phillipine Red as veep of Tourists' Union No. 63. Editor W.A. Simkins of the Britt News wrote: "It was advertising that Britt was after and she got it."3According to Bruns, hundreds of young men came to the convention in torn clothes, fake whiskers, blackened eyes and dangling fake tin cans and some of the 'real' hobos who attended left disillusioned with the "blatent exploitation of their brethren."4 The convention was held next in 1933 and since then it has been an annual event. Every year in Britt are crowned a King and a Queen of the Hoboes.
As the tramp and the hobo became figures more and more prevalent in popular culture, it is no wonder that he would also be represented in film and in recorded music as those media developed.
The Tramp's Unexpected Skate This 1901 film made by Thomas Edison shows the comic representation of the tramp.5
Romance of the Rail In this 1903 film, also by Thomas Edison, the tramp is so taken for granted as a 'part' of the railroad that he becomes part of a romantic scene that takes place there.6