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The History of Hobo Art

From Hobo and Tramp Art Carving: an authentic American folk tradition
By Adolph Vandertie with Patrick Spielman.
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The material from this book is used on our site by permission of Sterling Publishing Co., Inc. We wish to express our thanks to them for their kindness. In addition to the following text, we also have images which are representative of "hobo art".

For almost eighty years in America's history, the time between the Civil War and the Second World War, teenage boys dreamed of becoming hoboes. To them, the excitement of hopping a moving freight train, riding the rods beneath the passenger car, or outsmarting the railroad officials was equaled by no other dream. To these young men, hoboing was the ultimate test of manhood. It took courage, strength, skill, imagination, daring, and endurance to live on the road. And even though the reality of hobo life proved to be lonely, brutal, and often tragic, some considered their days riding the rails to be the best times of their lives.

The American hobo was probably one of the most maligned, misunderstood, and exploited members of American society. To better understand the true nature of the hobo, one needs only interpret one origin of the word hobo, which is derived from the English use of the term "hoe boys." This term was used to refer to the people who worked and hoed the gardens and estates of the very wealthy. In other words, the hobo was the original migrant worker. In America, these wandering workers were fairly common by the eighteenth century. Because there were no railroads, most of these men would suddenly appear in villages fairly near their home seeking work.

After the Civil War, the Industrial Revolution exploded across America and, with this rapid industrial growth and the development of the rail road, came the birth and the growth of the world of the American hobo. The true hobo was basically a laboring man of many trades and many talents who wandered the country in search of work.

He laid and repaired railroad track, harvested wheat, cut down trees, mined for gold, herded cattle, built bridges and then moved on. When the Depression hit this country and the times swung from prosperous to destitute, these hard times produced the hobo that we often think of today. By the end of the nineteenth century, it is estimated that more than a million men were on the road, riding the rails, looking for work. It was his constant wandering that made the hobo such a distinct and mythical character.

Without trains, there would not have been hoboes. Traveling was at the heart of hobo life, and the trains provided the means for that travel. A hobo did not pay a fare to ride the rails like the traditional passenger, instead he "flipped" freight trains - or jumped on board without paying. While a few specialized in passenger trains, which were the most difficult and dangerous to ride, most hoboes preferred to jump freight trains. To escape the detection of the men hired by the railroads - the railroad bulls - the hobo would hide in the coal of the coal cars or among cattle in the cattle cars. Riding a train became an art form and a matter survival for the hobo. A hobo's life depended upon knowing how to correctly board a train and ride on it, in it, or under it.

The hoboes lived by their own code of law and honor, authored their own stories, composed their own songs, developed their own customs, and wrote their own language. They were members of a new society who discarded their real names and identities and replaced them with names of the road, such as Feather River John "Mdoughey," Fry Pan Jack, Box Car Willie and Frisco Jack.

Most hoboes were intelligent, worldly, and amazingly eloquent. Steam Train Maury has often been quoted as saying "Do not ever confuse a hobo with a bum! A bum is shiftless and worthless. A hobo is a man of the world, who travels to see and observe and then shares those views with others." Steam Train has also been quoted in stories that testify to the authenticity of Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, and Art Linkletter spending a number of years as hoboes, gathering experiences and backgrounds before they began their writing and acting careers.

There is very little written about the leisure time of the hobo, but it is known that he was a stick whittler. He came about it naturally because he carried a jackknife, his most valuable tool, in his pocket; and wood was always available. So, with little else to do with his time, it was natural that he should learn to whittle.

The results of this whittling make up one of the original forms of American folk art, or hobo art. Hobo art consists mostly of objects that contain the ball-in-the-cage or the chain. They were objects of a more whimsical nature that were less utilitarian than the tramp art that is discussed in Tramp Art History. You may view some images of representative work here: Image 1   Image 2   Image 3   Image 4

To produce any of these fascinating pieces, the whittler needed only a piece of wood, his pocketknife and a sharpening stone. He, like the tramp, would then use his pieces to give as a gift to a friend, barter for food, or exchange for money.

Hobo and Tramp Art Carving is no longer in print. You may be able to find a copy at a used bookstore or on eBay.

For more information on hobo and tramp art please see:
1. How to carve a chain and whimsey.
2. A short article on tramp art.
3. How to make tramp art.
4. The history of tramp art.

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Tramp art for sale:   Tramp Art

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