How a Century of Homelessness Shaped America

U.S.Homeless.Poverty and Place in Urban America.Ella Howard

An interview with Todd DePastino, author of Citizen Hobo: How a Century of Homelessness Shaped America

Question: “Hobo” conjures up the 1930s—Woody Guthrie’s Bound for Glory and all that—but you start your book with the post-Civil War army of tramps. What put that army into motion?

Todd DePastino: We remember Depression-era hoboes best because that was the last time huge armies of homeless men wandered the nation by rail. But similar masses of the homeless—and indeed similar “Great Depressions”—were a regular feature of American life since at least the 1870s. The word “tramp” was used during the Civil War to mean a long grueling march to battle. But in 1873, the first year of a major economic depression, “tramp” began to refer to the new kind of vagrant who was on his own grueling march with “no visible means of support.” It fits, because many tramps of the 1870s were Civil War veterans, and they hitched rides on railroads that had transported troops during the war.

When the tramp army appeared in 1873, most of those in business, government, and charity work denied any connection between the depression and the legions of men on the road. No one, except those in the labor movement, recognized that the vast majority of tramping men were simply out of work. The word “unemployment” didn’t exist yet! Wage labor was still a relatively new thing, and not until the Civil War did a solid majority of households, at least in the North, live on paychecks. As many are discovering today, jobs are hard to find during hard times. So beginning in 1873, hundreds of thousands of young white men began to hop trains to look for work.

Question: When did “tramps” become “hoboes”? Where did that word come from? What’s the difference between a tramp, a hobo, and a bum?

DePastino: Well, there were endless squabbles about the differences between hoboes, tramps, and bums. One famous quip had it that the hobo works and wanders, the tramp drinks and wanders, and the bum just drinks. More accurately the tramp, the hobo, and the bum represent three historical stages of American homelessness, with the tramp coming first, in the 1870s, and the bum later, in the 1940s and 1950s.

So chronologically between the two was the hobo. Hoboes mark the coming of age of America’s tramp army. The end of the depression in 1878 did not mean the end of tramping. Like our homeless population today, the tramp army was resistant to upswings in the business cycle. By the 1890s, after twenty years on the road, tramping had matured to the point where it now possessed its own unique institutions, culture, and even politics—taken together, what later came to be called “hobohemia.”

on the roadWhere did the word “hobo” come from? I’ve not found a convincing explanation. Some say it derives from the term “hoe-boy,” meaning farm hand, or “homo bonus,” meaning “good man.” Others speculate that men shouted “Ho, Boy!” to each other on the road. One particularly literate wayfarer insisted the term came from the French “haut beau.” Whatever its origin, the word “hobo” became widespread in American vernacular during yet another major depression from 1893 to 1897.

I sometimes joke that a hobo is a tramp on steroids. Hoboes were by and large more organized, militant, independent, and political than their predecessors. The widespread use of the word “bum” after World War II signals the end of this colorful subculture of transient labor.

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Homeless.Poverty and Place in Urban America.Ella Howard:


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