The Last of the Free Men — The Hobo

Many images come to mind when one hears the word Hobo. Perhaps the first thing that springs to mind are images of steam trains chugging along a seemingly endless expansion of track making its westward journey. We picture men sitting in empty rail cars, carrying all their worldly possessions in a small burlap sack tied to the end of a long walking stick. We envision men in soiled overalls with long scraggily beards chewing on the remnants of what perhaps used to be a cigar.

Like the cowboys and indians of the Wild West, hobos, too, have become part of the patch-work quilt of American history and have transformed themselves into legendary, iconic images of the Great Depression era and embody the idea of “rugged individualism.” They came to represent a sign of the times - of great economic struggle and the persistence for survival. They played an integral role in westward expansion and emblematic of what it means to be American.

Hobos are not bums, nor are they tramps and would take considerable offense in being called either of those terms. Hobos were mainly men who, in times of great economic hardship, took to the road and to the rails in search of work and a living wage. These were a hardworking people that did not sit idly by in search of a handout when times were tough. These were men willing to work for what they and their families needed in order to survive. They earned every dime and morsel they were given. A tramp, like a hobo, would also travel on the rails but they were searching for a free meal, a few cents or a nice bottle of moonshine. Bums neither traveled nor worked and would beg for food or money whenever they were sober enough to do so.

The Great Depression was devastating and millions of people lost their jobs and livelihood during this time. Many men left towns and cities, heading westbound in search of employment and according to some sources, there were as many as 4 million individuals riding the rails during that time. What started out as a means for survival became a way of life and for some, continues to this day. Hobos, in time, created for themselves their own cultural niche in American society. They had their own style of dress, jargon, songs, literature and art. Perhaps one of the most striking, and one of the few tangible artifacts of Hobo culture are the myriad pieces of folk art produced, namely Tramp Art and Hobo Whimsies.

What is Tramp Art and a Hobo Whimsey? They are essentially pocketknife carvings made from layered pieces of soft wood procured from cigar boxes. Each layer of wood was intricately notched and stacked, one upon another to create a variety of objects ranging from boxes, to frames to crucifixes. They can also take the form of intricately carved individual pieces of wood. These objects are highly stylized, difficult to produce and represent the few physical remains we have of Hobo culture. We have the stories. We even have a few storytellers but both, as time progresses, are fading. What remains is the physical as represented by these brilliant examples of American folk art.

— Eric M Kuzma
March 31, 2010