Balloons & Bindles… on the road with…

The American Hobo

by Steven M. Watts
2013

 “They were road kids, and with every word they uttered the lure of The Road laid hold of me more imperiously…And it all spelled Adventure.” – Jack London


Definitions (from The Golden Age—1870’s-1920’s)

Hobo: migratory worker (“travels and works”)
Tramp: migratory non-worker (‘travels but doesn’t work”)
Bum: non-migratory non-worker (“neither travels nor works”)

“The Civil War had turned thousands of boys into disciplined foragers, resilient, hardened, able to find food and shelter in all conditions, proficient in the use of the railroad. After the war, many of these men, uprooted and inured to years of wandering and fighting for survival, found peace an unsettled time. Few jobs awaited. Now, with the days of troop movements and army camp life and dodging hostile forces behind, many continued their wandering—picking up odd jobs, sleeping outdoors under any available cover, begging meals, a new kind of adventure for which they were well trained. They followed wagon roads and trails. But mostly they hit the tracks.”
– Roger A. Bruns, Knights of the Road, 1980

These men, and a few women, wandered the country working in mines, logging camps, and shipyards. They worked for the farms, the railroads and the road crews. Some of them wandered to Texas joined the great cattle drives and became the mythic American cowboy—“hobos-on-horseback.” Hobos literally built the new America of the late-19th/early 20th century.

The Depression of the early 1870’s sent more men on the road in search of work—many of them highly educated professionals—now suddenly down on their luck. This group injected a strong literary/political element into the hobo community (think Robert Service and Jack London)… that inclination would eventually marry them to the labor movement of the 1920’s.

hoboThe technological developments of the 20’s reduced the need for large forces of manual laborers and the stock market crash and the Great Depression meant way too many unemployed and way too few jobs. The Golden Age of the Hobo was over. The number of hobos declined—and the numbers of tramps and bums increased. Today, the true hobo is a rare thing.

Throughout the Golden Age, hobos travelled with their worldly goods in bags, suitcases and packs—but mostly they carried their bedrolls (“balloons” & “bindles”) slung on their backs—backroadsmen on the freight train frontier.


Steve Watts directs the Aboriginal Studies Program and the Traditional Outdoor Skills Program at the Schiele Museum of Natural History in Gastonia, North Carolina. Watts is the author of Practicing Primitive: A Handbook of Aboriginal Skills, Gibbs Smith Publishers, 2004.

4 Responses to Balloons & Bindles… on the road with…

  1. ddelafield@gmail.com'
    David D. January 20, 2015 at 1:30 pm #

    I found the connection being suggested between the hobo communities created by the depression of the early 1870’s and the story tellers of Robert Service and Jack London to be interesting though perhaps not entirely accurate. The author suggests that these two narrators added a literary element to this group of wandering (primarily) men.

    This would have been very difficult to achieve as Robert Service was born in 1874 and Jack London in 1876. With their first successful publications (books) occurring in 1905 and 1902 respectively. In their early efforts these two men certainly told some great stories associated with travel and living in the outskirts of the ‘civilized’ world. But their travelling ways really did not take form until at least the mid 1890’s. In Service’s case, he did wander throughout western North America in the 1890’s, working, attempting schooling, mooching off relatives and accumulating stories. But hardly as an established writer. London on the other hand lived a life somewhat more akin to the wandering hobo, but again not until the 1890’s, when he spent time as a ship owner, sailor, sealer and, briefly, as a hobo.

    It is interesting to note that Robert Service appears to have intentionally placed a great deal of mystery and misperception about his personal life. Even in reading his autobiography it becomes very clear that he delighted in living in the shadows, keeping his personal life details hidden, yet creating a very colourful mystique around his adventure. Some historians and literary scholars have even questioned the validity of his claims to his bohemian lifestyle that he pursued in the 1890’s. But this should detract from the fact that the man was a masterful storyteller. Like many great story tellers he blends reality and fiction, blurring timelines in the interest of a great narrative. And even more interestingly, he has even ensured that even within his own lifestory it is difficult to separate the truth from the projected.

    Rather than providing a literary element to the hobo community of the 1870’s, it might be more accurate to suggest that these men provided a sanitized and romanticized picture of these communities that was consumed by the public beginning in the early 1900’s. But it must be said that they did each have their ‘wandering years’ but not beginning until the 1890’s. In this sense, their writing’s may have prepped the public to view the hobos of the Great Depression in a slight different light. But by this time London was dead and Service was living a rather luxurious lifestyle in Europe.

    That said I have thoroughly enjoyed reading both of these authors, even to the point of retracing their paths in portions of Alberta, British Columbia, Yukon Territories and the Northwest Territories, not to mention exploring the scenes and landscapes depicted in many of their stories and poems. They certainly created a wealth of images that evoke a different time and place from most of our experiences. And to this we owe them a debt of thanks.

  2. stevewatts@cityofgastonia.com'
    Steven M. Watts January 21, 2015 at 9:06 am #

    David..
    .Many thanks for your insightful and well-informed response to “Balloons and Bindles..”. It’s great to hear from someone who obviously knows a thing or two about American literature and history. Your critique is very clear–unlike the poor placement of my parenthetical reference to Service and London.
    I certainly did not mean to imply that they were writing during the 1870s, but rather that their writing was part of a hobo literature tradition that spanned the years between the Civil War and the Great Depression. I dropped their names as authors that most might be familiar with as opposed to the many others (mostly now long-forgotten) who contributed to newspapers and magazines like the Hoboes Jungle Scout founded in 1913 and later changed to the Hobo News (1915-1929)….with it’s wonderful slogan–“Of the hoboes, by the hoboes and for the hoboes”. Hobo writers like John Kelly, Nicholas Klein and William Schweitzwer were contributors to such publications, and few like Jim Tully and Harry Kemp managed to publish books.
    I also agree that Service and London had somewhat limited experience (when compared to others) as travelling working men (the true definition of “hobo”), but they indeed did spend time on the road with a bindle on their back practicing the campcraft of the lonesome traveler….which was what I was really trying to talk about here anyway. Their often romanticized accounts are an important part of the roadside literature of the early twentieth century, and both authors are favored reading around the campfires of todays Classic Camping enthusiasts. We are, after all, a bunch of unapologetic romantics.
    So, thanks again for your critical eye (along with your obvious appreciation of the work of these gifted men).
    I would certainly like to have the opportunity to sit by a fire with you and hear of your journeys north in the footsteps of these two greats.

    “And some of us are climbing on the peak,
    And some of us are camping on the plain;
    By pine and palm you’ll find us, with never claim to bind us,
    By track and trail you’ll meet us once again.”
    Robert Service

  3. glennallyn@gmail.com'
    Glenn Allen November 15, 2015 at 5:20 am #

    Steve, very interesting article. A modern counter part to the hobo could be the “crusty kids” or traveler kids or gutter punks. Asheville NC is common destination for them. While most would be in the bum category, they do frequently travel by rail and practice ” the camp craft of the lonesome traveler” to degree. They have even developed a set of symbols and slang terms to communicate with each other much like the hobo’s did. Interesting sub-culture that uses similar methods to live outside the norm.
    Another modern group that has a similar connection is the “rainbow family” . While not specifically hobo’s they do spend extended amounts of time camping in the wilderness and use a lot of techniques and skills of the woodsman such building stoves, ovens as well as latrines from natural materials. These two sub-cultures often interact as the “crustys” often follow the rainbow gatherings. There is a “primitive or caveman camp at rainbow gatherings where using primitive shelters, skills and techniques is encouraged and shared. There has been great amount of cultural appropriation from the natives Americans as weIl. I find it interesting to see how these techniques “re-evolve” and are re-discovered when people bgin living close to nature again.
    While the Rainbows and Crustys are not quite my cup o’ tea, they do camp for extended times and use techniques similar to the hobos for daily living. Have you ever considered looking at some of the techniques and equipment used by the Romany and European Traveller peoples. Another group that spent a lot of camping. Quite interesting.
    I spent some time wandering the roads in my youth and still tramp the hills in East TN using traditional skills and homemade gear. I enjoy your articles and your historical perspective on camping. Thanks for sharing the knowledge and contributing to the preservation of camp lore. Maybe I’ll see ya ’round the fire sometime. Be of good cheer.

  4. stevewatts@cityofgastonia.com'
    Steven M. Watts November 17, 2015 at 8:17 am #

    Many thanks for your comments, Glenn. Yes, I’m interested in all outdoor skills applications…mainstream or (especially) from the fringe…and, I have drawn a lot from the traditional Romany, Travelers and Tinkers as well….there’s centuries of outdoor experience and wisdom there for sure I would enjoy some of that time around the fire with you, sir.

Leave a Reply