Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

Charity and the "Tramp": Itinerancy, Unemployment, and Municipal Government from Coxey to the Unemployed League

Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

Charity and the "Tramp": Itinerancy, Unemployment, and Municipal Government from Coxey to the Unemployed League

Article excerpt

What is a tramp? What a world of meaning is conveyed by the word "tramp!" Do you ever stop to think of these outcasts of society? Do you ever consider what is the cause of the existence of these often despised human beings? Doomed to walk from place to place depending upon the charity of their brothers, can you conceive of a more miserable or humiliating existence? Friendless, horseless, forlorn, despised! Ah, that humanity would awaken from its lethargic state, and arouse to a true understanding of the "tramp" question! What a mockery to behold a strong, able-bodied willing individual in a land of abundance seeking in vain for an opportunity to work to sustain life!

--Tacoma Sun, 1894

Up and down our Pacific Coast floats a motley band of vagabonds. The criminal, the tramp, in many cases the wandering, shiftless, working-man, make common protest against any useful labor and boycott it as far as they can. The result is inevitable. The progress of the Coast Communities is retarded, and the men bring sorrow and poverty upon themselves and trouble and damage upon all they come in contact with.

--Thomas Strong, 1910 address to Associated Charities of Portland

THE FORCES THAT ALTERED the late-nineteenth-century Pacific North-west landscape--the rise of agribusiness, the expansion of the rail network, increased irrigation, technological advances in lumbering--affected more than the region's ecology and economy. An army of itinerant laborers, only nominally tied to a particular place or occupation, was swept up into industrial capitalism's westward expansion, which one historian has described as creating "a world perpetually in the process of becoming, of reforming, and seemingly functioning (at times) on the edge of chaos." (1) As the "great natural-resource reservoir" and "investment arena" for American and European capital, the West was intimately connected to fluctuations in international markets, a situation that led to uncontrolled enthusiasm and expansion one moment and empty mining, construction, and logging camps the next. Itinerancy was a laborer's response to an economic system dominated by frequent bouts of unemployment and idleness, harsh working and living conditions, a cut-and-run mentality, and an uneven distribution of power. In other words, itinerancy was a creation as well as an individual response to the introduction of industrial capitalism in the Pacific Northwest (2).

Dependent on these distant and frequently unstable markets, the region's dominant industries--mining, lumbering, and agriculture--could one moment draw thousands of job-seekers into a particular region and the next release thousands onto a job market with few alternatives other than continued unemployment or geographic relocation. Most of these western industries were also seasonal in nature, requiring massive amounts of labor in some seasons and needing far less in others. In confronting the region's unusual geography of labor mobility, workers had few options--change their occupation, change their location, or bide their time living in one of the Pacific Northwest's emerging Skid Road districts (3).

FACING LIMITED JOB PROSPECTS in hinterland work camps during economic downturns, itinerant laborers--predominantly single men, young, and native-born or from older immigrant families--headed to the region's urban centers to find temporary employment, cheap accommodations, relief from dangerous and monotonous employment, and a wider variety of charity options. In these urban centers, the region's seasonally unemployed rubbed shoulders with the truly itinerant "tramps," the city's underemployed and laboring masses, and other denizens that serviced and preyed on laborers in the region's Skid Roads. Within this largely male world, laborers and reformers were continually negotiating the construction of gender, class, sexual, and racial norms. (4)

In addition to providing affordable food and housing options, informal charity resources (such as free lunches), employment information, and places to sleep, cities such as Portland possessed an expanding formal charity network. …

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