Homelessness
1850-1890

 

 

 

Poverty grew to be a social problem and an allegory for urban turmoil and personal disintegration during the depression of the 1870s and again in the severe economic crisis beginning in 1893. During these same decades, the male tramp and the hobo assumed their representative role in the literature of poverty. Language became a social instrument as the tramp was maligned as an outcast and a threat to the established social order and romanticized as the embodiment of rugged American individualism (Abelson).

Many men became what were known as "hoboes." The astounding unemployment rate sent many previously skilled workers traveling around the country in search of work. The word "hoboes" originated from "hoe boys," which were migrant farm workers who used hoes to weed out fields. Hoboes had taken rails as a way of life. Hoboes worked to buy the goods, services, and food they needed to survive. On the other hand, they did not believe in holding permanent jobs in one place. Tramps also did not have permanent homes. Tramps generally traveled by train also but did not seek work like hoboes did. Towards the late 1880s the economy was depressed and an increasingly great number of hoboes took the trains. Hoboes would go from place to place looking for work. In the rural communities, people would help them by giving them jobs especially during the time of harvest. Although many hoboes were forced to travel in order to find work, many enjoyed the lifestyle.

Prior to the Civil War the homeless quandary and responses to it remained local in nature. The post-Civil War period brought about a drastic rise in homelessness and transience. The construction of the railroads and the rise of commercial agriculture provided transient workers with periodic jobs. These workers were characterized as tramps, hoboes, and bums and were required to leave town when their jobs were finished (Rossi 20). The railroad-riding tramp became an unprecedented phenomenon of the post-Civil War period.

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