The Fraternity of the Tramp

In 1897 Isabella Alden wrote about the life of a tramp in her book, As In A Mirror. In doing so, she described a true cultural phenomenon. After the American Civil War, tramp life ranged across the nation, especially in the western states where winters were mild and the living was easy. In particular, California was a tramp’s paradise where a man could sleep free under the stars at night and pluck his breakfast from an orange tree in the morning. In some ways, tramps enjoyed a unique popularity similar to the cowboy; both emerged in the public mind as stereotypes of  carefree, rough-and-tumble adventurers who embodied the American spirit.

Tramp 03

But by the 1880s the tramp’s image began to fade and society began to see tramps more as lazy thieves. Tramps who dared to beg for a meal or a place to sleep often received an answer in the form of a double-barreled shotgun pointed their direction. Some towns passed laws prohibiting tramps from entering their borders, and there are stories of police officers standing by while townspeople stoned tramps gauntlet-style as they ran them out of town.

Tramp 01

As a result, tramps developed a method of communicating to each other whether a particular town or home was friendly to tramps. They chalked crude symbols on barns, fence posts and water tanks so the tramps who came after them knew what to expect.

Here’s how Isabella Alden described the practice in her novel, As In A Mirror. The book’s hero, John Stuart King, disguised as a tramp, encountered a woman who was openly fearful of him. As he tried to understand the woman’s reaction, he met a real tramp for the first time.

For a full hour his sympathies were entirely on the side of the tramp. Then he met one so repulsive in appearance that he instantly justified the woman who had been afraid of him. It was a new experience to be accosted as he was:

“Any luck that way, pal?” nodding in the direction from which he had come.

“I haven’t found any work yet, if that is what you mean,” spoken in the tone that in his former grade of life would have been called cold.

The man gave a disagreeable sneer. “Oh, that’s your dodge, is it?” he said. “I can tell you I’ve had worse trials in life than not finding work. Did you spot any of the houses?”

“Did I what?”

“Mark the houses where they treated you decent, and gave you coffee, or lemonade, or something? You must be a green one! Don’t you carry no chalk nor nothin’ with you to mark the places? Then you’re a hard-hearted wretch. If you can’t do so much for your fellow tramps as that, you ought to go to the lockup.”

The healthy, clean young man found himself shrinking from this specimen with a kind of loathing. Would it be possible for him to fraternize with such as he, even to study human nature?

Here are a few samples of the symbols tramps used to indicate whether fellow-tramps could expect to receive a sandwich or a spray of bird shot at a particular home or town:

Tramp 02-01


The people who live here have a gun


Tramp 02-02


Handcuffs; tramps here are sent to jail


Tramp 02-03


This is a safe place


Tramp 02-04


This campsite is safe from police


Tramp 02-05


You can get a hand-out here


Tramp 02-06


Dry town; no alcohol


Tramp 02-07


Liquor sold in this town


Tramp 02-08 ..

A policeman lives here


Tramp 02-09 ..

Vicious or biting dog


Tramp 02-10 ..

A woman lives here who is kind


Tramp 02-12 ..

Police eyes shut; this is a good town

..Tramp 02-11 

Police eyes open; this is a hostile town


4 thoughts on “The Fraternity of the Tramp

  1. This was so interesting! I remember hearing some tales of my grandparents (who lived on a farm at the time) and their experiences with tramps. I really enjoyed this book by Isabella Alden as well and the discussion questions on the Kindle version. Did you write those? My only question is: The last two symbols look exactly the same to me, but have opposite meanings. Can this be right? Thanks for your posts.

    Vicky Benson Indiana

    1. Vicky, thank you for catching the error! The last two symbols in the post are now corrected to show the simple (but meaningful) difference the marks would communicate to a tramp.

  2. I’m so glad I found this post! I’ve been compiling a family history and came across this in an old diary entry about my grandmother:

    “We were still in the depression and things were tough. Our house was on a main street right at Five Points so we got a lot of university students as well as hobos. Men out of work. Mother never turned anyone away and our house was marked that they could get food there. I remember so often sitting on the front stairs with them as they ate. One night when Mom brought a piece of cherry pie out to a man he started to cry. He hadn’t eaten in two days and to have a good meal and dessert too was more than he could handle. Mother went back to the kitchen and fixed him some sandwiches to take with him. She invited him to come back but he said they took turns coming to our house because it was the only place they got a whole meal.”

    I always wondered what the “mark” on the house could have looked like and now I know! Thanks for the info. I’ve really enjoyed reading the posts.

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