BOY AND GIRL TRAMPS
Background: During our Great Depression, young people, thirteen to nineteen, found it
necessary to leave home rather than be more of a burden to their families. They joined
groups of "unemployed" men and women who "rode the rails" rather than roam the
streets looking for non-existent jobs. The following description gives insight to the kind
of life they faced trying to survive while traveling:
Source: In the early 1930s a graduate student at the University of
Minnesota dressed in old clothes, traveled with youthful tramps to gather
material for his thesis. This selection describes how they got food and
clothes on the road. Thomas Minehan, Boy and Girl Tramps of America
(New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1934), pp. 67-71, 78-83.
THE AMERICAN YOUNG TRAMPS, if one may judge by appearances, are not hungry.
To a casual observer, they seem in good health and not bad spirits. When you talk to
them, however, or listen to their talk, you realize the conversation concerns food. When
you live with them, eating at the missions or in the jungles, you understand almost too
well why they are so concerned with food.
The young tramps, I repeat, are not starving. But for growing, healthy boys
engaged in strenuous outdoor life, the food they eat is shamefully inadequate. Many
relief stations serve but two meals a day, others three, and some only one. No station
ever serves second helpings and the Oliver who asks for more is expelled before
breakfast. Jungle food is better in quality and, if the pickings are good, more generous
in quantity, but meals are uncertain. One day the boys may gorge themselves. The next
there may not be a slice of bread or a cup of coffee.
Travel interferes with meals. A youth shivers all night in a gondola. Next day he
falls asleep on a hillside and sleeps the sleep of exhaustion until dusk. On awakening
he is hungry, but where can he get food? The bread lines are closed. The Police have,
in one of the weekly raids, cleaned out the jungles. At none of the customary places are
there friends or food. The youth can beg on the streets, walking miles perhaps before
he gets a nickel. A boy can steal, but the chances are that he will be caught. A girl can
offer her body, but as likely as not she will find nobody in the market with desire and a
dime. The usual course is to remain hungry until breakfast at a mission for a boy, or
until breakfast can be begged by a girl. If the boy is very hungry, he may glom a grub
from garbage cans.
The breakfast at the mission, if he remains there, is a thin bowl of gruel
containing too few vitamins and calories to replace the energy lost on a twenty-four-hour
fast. In one day’s fast the boy’s body has been definitely robbed of much strength. With
work and walking, sleeping out of doors, and riding in boxcars, it may be a long time
before that lost energy can be replaced. Yet, unlike the adult tramp, all the time the boy
is growing. He needs enough food not only for the repair and replacement of tissue
oxidized in daily activity, but for growth, development, and future use. He does not get it.
Not only does he fail to receive food enough for a growing, healthy boy but
because he is constantly calling on reserves he is definitely undernourished. The signs
of malnutrition may not be so evident to the casual observer. A dozen child tramps in a
shower room or swimming hole appear merely a group of lean and lanky boys. But if the
observer is critical, he will note the too-prominent ribs, an abdomen too concave, and
legs and arms on which the skin, strange phenomenon in the young, is loose and baggy
as if there were not enough muscle and flesh underneath. He will notice, too, the tired,
hungry eyes, the nervous mannerisms, and the habitual posture of weariness and want.
Communities differ in their systems of caring for all transients. Almost all,
however, give one free meal, work for the second meal, a bed on the floor, and eviction
before a second or third day.
A boy tramp arriving in any large city walks from the railroad yards to the bread
line. The bread line may be a mission, a Salvation Army flop house, or a municipal
welfare station, or, literally, a bread line. Some cities have two bread lines; others, only
one. The more bread lines, the better for the boy tramp. Rivalry between them forces
each to give better service. Meals are varied, privileges and accommodations greater,
and sometimes on lucky days it is possible to get food in both. All agencies follow more
or less the same procedure. Generally there is some form of confidential exchange, so
that the agencies can compare records and information, keep from being imposed
upon, and force the young tramps out of the city in two or three days.
As soon as he arrives at the station the boy registers, receiving a slip of
identification. Generally the registration is a mere formality to keep a record of the
number of transients accommodated. After the registration, the youth is usually entitled
to something. Some agencies give him a card for the next meal; others, a bowl of soup
immediately; still others, merely an opportunity to work for a meal. Before a second
meal is served, however, the young tramp must work two to four hours. The work is not
onerous, but for a tired boy laboring on a bowl of beans and soup it is difficult enough.
The soup is invariable—I write from experience—thin, watery, lukewarm, tasteless, and
served without even stale bread, and never with soda crackers. A portion equals about
a small cupful. No second bowl is ever give, no matter how tired and hungry the boy.
Meals vary from city to city, but the two old reliables are stew and beans. Stew
and beans, beans and stew. Sandwiches are sometimes given instead—usually cheese
or peanut butter. Once a week, perhaps, a boiled vegetable dinner or hash is on the bill.
Bread accompanies the meal. The bread is almost always bakery returns. Stale and
unpalatable, or Red Cross flour bread baked by the missions in their own ovens. Fresh,
wholesome, and appetizing, the latter bread is good—but there isn’t enough of it. . . .
And while some missions in their publicity claim to serve pie, it is sky pie. I have
never had any, have never seen any served to other transients, nor have any of the
men and boys to whom I have talked ever encountered a mission meal with pie—save
one old hobo. He asserts that on Christmas in Chicago in 1911 he received a small
piece of mince pie in a mission, but his memory—rapidly failing—cannot recall the
place, he is not sure of the time, and it may not have been mince pie after all. . . .
With what they receive at missions, beg at back doors, and steal from farmers
and others, the young tramps manage to keep alive. Some meals the youths cook in
jungles are very good meals indeed. . . . At other jungle meals I have eaten potatoes
burnt to a cinder, coffee full of sand, ants, and flies, chicken poorly dressed and sourly
cooked, and boiled salt fish that tasted like something inexpressibly evil and diseased.
The relief stations for transients in the large cities feed but do not clothe the
young tramps. Clothing is for the local homeless, not for the travelers. A boy or girl
tramp must be not only in rages but half-naked to obtain a patched and dirty shirt or a
worn cap. How difficult it is to obtain clothing nobody who has never tried can know. I
have tried. For almost a week in two important cities of this country noted for their large
transient populations and their advanced and humane policy of handling transients, I
tried to get clothing in return for honest labor and in response to obvious need.
It was in December and very cold. Snow covered the ground. The thermometer
had touched zero more than once the preceding night and morning saw its continued
Dressed as a transient, registered and living at the missions, eating and sleeping
with the men and boys, working for my soup and bed, taking the compulsory shower
and fumigation, I attempted to obtain needed clothing. Without an overcoat beyond a
well-worn blazer, buttonless and out at one elbow, with a pair of trousers out at the knee
and in the seat, with an old summer cap that had hung for years in a furnace room, with
worn tennis shoes covered by patched rubbers, and with a pair of unmatched canvas
gloves, I attempted to get some clothes through the regular relief agencies and to no
avail. . . .
It is well perhaps to keep my experience in mind. Unless you have something
concrete to judge by it is difficult to realize that the child tramps must get their clothing
mainly by begging and stealing. The road is hard on clothes. A few days on the cinders
or cement and a pair of shoes are well worn. Clothes slept in, in jungles or boxcars,
boiled and fumigated at missions, soaked in the rain, soon disintegrate. Rents and tears
appear. Patches will not hold. Replacements are needed.
But if the child tramp cannot get clothing by working at agencies, how can he get
it? He can beg or steal. He must beg or steal. Begging is the method used most often.
The child tramps beg clothing at back doors, on the streets and at second-hand stores.1
David A. Shannon, The Great Depression (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1960), pp. 61-5.
• relief stations: Places, usually in cities, where the unemployed or needy can apply for
counseling, job opportunities, food and clothing, or medical needs.
• Jungle food: On occasions, townspeople would hear about transients who were
without food and put together meals and bring them to the outskirts of town called
"jungles." Other times, the transients would steal chickens, fruits, and vegetables
from nearby fields.
• gorge: eating more than your fill.
• gondola: A railroad car with sides but no top in order to carry bulky materials.
• bread line: a line of needy persons assembled to receive food or charity.
• glom: “If the boy is very hungry, he may glom a grub from garbage cans.”
• oxidized: As in the case of food, glucose is oxidized to carbon dioxide and water thus
causing the metabolism of cabohydrates.
•transients: Often a homeless person traveling around in search of work.
• fumigation: To expose to smoke or fumes as a means of disinfecting.