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 descent.

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.


• 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.

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