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This article is about vagrants. For other uses, see Tramp (disambiguation).
A romanticized tramp depicted in an 1899 U.S. poster

A tramp is a long-term homeless person who travels from place to place as a vagrant, traditionally walking all year round. The term "tramp" became a common way to refer to such people in 19th-century America.


Tramp is derived from the Middle English as a verb meaning to "walk with heavy footsteps" (cf. modern English trample) and to go hiking.[1] In the United States, the word became frequently used during the American Civil War, to describe the widely shared experience of undertaking long marches, often with heavy packs. Use of the word as a noun is thought to have begun shortly after the war. A few veterans had developed a liking for the "call of the road", others may have been too traumatised by war time experience to return to settled life.[2]


The number of transient homeless people increased markedly in the U.S. after the industrial recession of the early 1870s. Initially, the term "tramp" had a broad meaning, and was often used to refer to migrant workers who were looking for permanent work and lodgings. Later the term acquired a narrower meaning, to refer only to those who prefer the transient way of life.[2] Writing in 1877 Allan Pinkerton said:

"The tramp has always existed in some form or other, and he will continue on his wanderings until the end of time; but there is no question that he has come into public notice, particularly in America, to a greater extent during the present decade than ever before."[3]

Author Bart Kennedy, a self-described tramp of 1900 America, once said "I listen to the tramp, tramp of my feet, and wonder where I was going, and why I was going."[4] [5] John Sutherland (1989) said that Kennedy "is one of the early advocates of 'tramping', as the source of literary inspiration."[5]

The tramp became a character trope in vaudeville performance in the late 19th century in the United States. Lew Bloom claimed he was "the first stage tramp in the business".[6]

While tramps may do odd jobs from time to time, unlike other temporarily homeless people they do not seek out regular work and support themselves by other means such as begging or scavenging (see Waste picker). This is in contrast to:

Both terms, "tramp" and "hobo" (and the distinction between them), were in common use between the 1880s and the 1940s. Their populations and the usage of the terms increased during the Great Depression. Like "hobo" and "bum," the word "tramp" is considered vulgar in American English usage, having been subsumed in more polite contexts by words such as "homeless person" or "vagrant." At one time, tramps were known euphemistically in England and Wales as "gentlemen of the road."

See also[edit]


  1. ^ See Wiktionary: tramp
  2. ^ a b Todd DePastino (2005). Citizen Hobo: How a Century of Homelessness Shaped America. Chicago University Press. pp. 1–48. ISBN 0226143791. 
  3. ^ Pinkerton, Allan (1877). Strikers, Communists, Tramps and Detectives, New York: G.W. Carleton & Co.
  4. ^ Kennedy, Bart (1900). A man adrift: being leaves from a nomad's portfolio. Chicago: H.S. Stone. p. 161. 
  5. ^ a b John Sutherland. "Kennedy, Bart" in Companion to Victorian Literature. Stanford University Press, 1989.
  6. ^ DePastino, Todd. Citizen Hobo: How a Century of Homelessness Shaped America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003: 157

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