Tramps in the Early 1900s

16-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Sunday, March 3, 1912:  I don’t believe we are going to get our papers back. I wouldn’t mind knowing what some of my marks are. Perhaps not very satisfactory any way.

Source: Wikipedia

Had to walk home from school behind a tramp. I walked slow enough you can bet.

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

Sounds a little scary—

A tramp walking down a rural road—and a a teen-aged girl needing to walk the same road  to get home from school.

Grandma would have walked down this road to get home from school. Probably each farm-house along the way represented a safe haven.

There were lots of tramps in US in the early 1900s. Many men found it very difficult to find jobs as the country industrialized. According to Wikipedia:

In 1906, Professor Layal Shafee, after an exhaustive study, put the number of tramps in America at 500,000 (about 0.6% of the U.S. population). The article citing this figure, What Tramps Cost the Nation, was published by The New York Telegraph in 1911 and estimated the number had surged to 700,000.

11 thoughts on “Tramps in the Early 1900s

  1. We have homeless, mostly men, who live under the highway street underpasses here in Atlanta. I suppose they would have been called tramps back in 1911. Recently they built a high fence around one to keep them from being able to build their shelters up on top of the slope. Now they just live all along the outside of the fence.

    1. Somehow the terms tramp (and hobo) seem more hopeful than homeless. It’s so sad and hard to know how to help the homeless. Trying to get people to move on doesn’t really resolve the problem—

  2. My grandmother had a farm, near the railroad tracks by the Susquehanna River in Lewisburg. My mom, who was a young girl in the 40’s, told me that they often had men – who would jump off of the train – come to their door looking for farm work in exchange for food. Sometimes my grandmother would ‘hire’ them and leave plates of food on the front porch for them to eat. Other times, if there wasn’t any work, the family would lock their doors and close the curtains until they left. – I guess some of these guys would get angry if they weren’t offered any work or food. My mom also told me that these men would have certain ‘marks or symbols’ that they would leave near a house in order to alert other homeless men whether or not this was a place that ‘hired’. (Maybe a pile of rocks or twigs…not sure).
    Anyway, thanks for your great website. It always reminds me of home!!
    J, Philadelphia

    1. Thanks for the nice note. Your comment brings back vague memories of my mother telling me about hobos during the great depression. She also said that the men would use symbols to indicate whether it was a good place to stop–and that her family would try to figure out what the symbols were and get rid of them so that fewer hobos would stop.

  3. My dad once told me he wanted to be a hobo when he grew up – he was born in 1922. He told me how tramps left marks and symbols at the houses they stopped at, as mentioned in the comment above, to indicate to those who followed if the householder was kindly or not. He remembers his mom fed a few of them.

    An interesting newspaper article about a man who pretended to be a tramp fell out of the Bible belonging to my husband’s third-great-grandfather. I transcribed it here:

    1. Hobos seem to have had a certain aura of adventure and romanticism about them. Today young people go on study-abroad trips–maybe in the day people became hobos for a little while to see the world.

      Thanks for sharing the wonderful newspaper article. I’d encourage anyone interested in getting a richer perspective of how tramps were once viewed to click on Barbara’s link and read the clipping–it’s really interesting. (And, the tramp in the article may have eventually become a college president).

  4. sounds like a girl with good sense — brave enough to walk home, but sensible enough to stay out of harms way. both good qualities for life.

  5. This is really interesting! We had a dictionary of symbols at the library where I use to work, and it had tramp symbols (Carl G. Liungman. Dictionary of symbols, 1991. ABC-CLIO, 1991.) I had never heard of tramp’s marks and symbols until I saw this dictionary. My dad use to talk about tramps and gypsies camping the in the field near the house where he lived as a kid..

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