The Machine Age: The Tramp Problem

The tramp has always existed in some form or other, and he will continue on his wanderings until the end of time; but there is no question that he has come into public notice, particularly in America, to a greater extent during the present decade than ever before.1
Allan Pinkerton, 1877

In earlier days, days of local and mercantile capitalism, unemployment tended to stay local and its refugees swallowed up in local relief, charity, or jails. It was only after the Civil War, when failures and lay-offs sent large numbers of men on the hunt for work, and when there was a railroad to carry those men as far as they needed to go to find it, that the question of the wandering destitute became paramount.

The Civil War itself is often touted as a cause for the multitude of young, single displaced men on the move in the 1870s. The war broke social ties and destroyed homes and families and livelihoods; some men may have grown used to life on the move, on the rails, in the camps. No doubt this is a factor; and yet the volume of unemployed - and the continually increasing volume on the road by century's end - speaks to larger, economic issues.

"The story of tramping," writes Eric Monkkonen in the Introduction to Walking To Work, "is the story of the mass population movement caused by the industrial transformation of the urban United States."2 That transformation involved wild speculation in railroads and overexpansion in most areas of the economy. In 1873, it only took one failure to precipitate a national financial crisis. When Jay Cooke and Company (the banking house and financial agent for the Northern Pacific Railway) went under, unemployment started as railroad construction shuddered to a halt.3 More than 4,000,000 people lost their jobs (an estimated half million railroad workers) and many of them took advantage of the railroad lines to look for work.

It was at this time that 'Tramps' became largely written about in the press: where they came from and especially, how to get rid of them. As the number of strangers appearing at back doors grew, the ability and desire of citizens and localities to take responsibility for these indigent strangers waned. Towns and municipalities called meetings to discuss the "tramp problem"; many passed strict vagrancy or trespassing laws. Some people advocated that municipalities take action and provide housing or other assistance; a more draconian idea, although perhaps sarcastic, was to put arsenic in meat and leave it out the back door.

Allan Pinkerton, in Strikers, Communists, Tramps and Detectives, addressed the problem of tramps. While Pinkerton and Pinkerton Agency Detectives (their own existence born of new classes at odds with industrial capitalism) were not considered a friend to tramps, at times he seemed to back off from the absolute vilification of the wandering man.

I do not agree with Professor Wayland and others as to the universal villainy and ferocity of the tramp, though I have no measures to advocate, nor hardly any suggestions to make. Although tramping from place to place was necessary a century ago immeasurably greater than now, the "tramp" as an institution to attract public notice, and possibly need public leglislation, is comparatively new. We shall have to get better acquainted with him, when we will know how to treat him, and perhaps, if necessary, manage him. ... As a class, I feel that they have been somewhat misunderstood and always scorned and vilified.4

Nevertheless, laws continued to be passed condemning any beggar or wanderer to hard labor on the county or town farm. [image here]

By the 1890s, sociologists and concerned citizens were seriously investigating the lives of their tramp and pauper population so as to try to eliminate the conditions that made them. John James McCook, Hartford clergyman, teacher and "Investigator of so-called phaenomena and writer concerning them," studied the tramp problem extensively beginning in 1891. McCook "dogged and interviewed tramps with undiminished interest in their travels, habits, histories and health." 5 Most famously, he began a postcard correspondence with "Roving Bill" Aspinwall that lasted for 25 years.


The link between the economic environment and vagrancy and homelessness is explored in this 1891 address called The Tramp As A Social Factor in which William Gorsuch argues against society's inhumane treatment of the tramp.

How do we make tramps? Listen. Let me paint you a picture, one that each of you has seen produced in colors of life. The cottage-home of the wage-worker embowered in climbing vines and roses. The husband and father receiving his two dollars or three dollars a day, happy in the love of his sweet-voiced wife and bright-eyed children, has no thought of envy for the rich. The crisis occurs. We have produced too much to keep up profits; therefore, industry must cease. The wage-worker, dependent upon his daily wages, is turned out with every avenue to produce closed. The landlord still demands rent, the baker and butcher must still be satisfied.
In a few months, out into the street go man, woman and children, evicted by law…. All household goods are soon sold….
Still no work! The Church says: "Do not steal," and before his eyes, the toiler of years sees die of starvation, wife and children.
Disheartened and bereft of hope, the worker is forced into trampism - ceaseless look for bread. 6 Full Text

Josiah Flynt, himself a tramp, was extensively published in magazines during the 1890s and was one of the first to introduce the public to the social world of the tramp. He, however, did not believe that the tramp was a result of fluctuations in the labor market. In How Men Become Tramps he claimed insufficient law enforcement and drink the culprits.

The industrialization of America meant the development of industrial centers. It involved industries such as steel, coal, iron, and oil production which were subject not only to natural stops and starts, but to fluctuations in national and worldwide markets; industries whose need for manpower fluctuated with changing seasons as well as with any improvement in machine technology. One of the most important industries to develop, and the industry which more than any other helped build not only industry's infrastructure but also the subculture of the tramp and the hobo, was the Railroad.

The Roll of the Rails