Over a quarter of a century ago, E. J. Hobsbawm wrote a provocative article describing the tramping system that emerged among skilled artisans in nineteenth-century Great Britain, detailing the travel habits of craftsmen and the practices established by the trade unions to accommodate them. 1 In contrast, social historians in the United States have paid increasing attention to measuring the mobility of Americans in the industrial age without examining the institutional mechanisms delineated by Hobsbawm. Studies of persistence have demonstrated the prominence of transience in working-class life in the United States, creating what Stephan Thernstrom and Peter Knights called a "floating proletariat." 2 Despite this growing body of scholarly literature concerning the dimension of geographic mobility, however, we know far less about the travel patterns of particular American artisan groups than we do of those studied by Hobsbawm. Why, when, and where they moved remain, for the most part, unknown. Nor is there a great deal of information describing the ways in which itinerancy affected the lives and and institutions of American workers. This study of one group of tramping artisans in the United States, the carpenters, shows how they created traditions of migration and complex communication networks which facilitated their accommodation to a fluid and mobile economic system in the late nineteenth century. Moreover, the problems of itinerancy actually fostered the organization of a national federation of carpenters unions in 1881.
Itinerancy had long been associated with the carpentry trade. "There is a streak of the nomad in every carpenter," wrote Robert Christie, "and itinerancy has in some measure characterized the trade since guild carpen