This short notice, entitled “When a ‘Hobo’ Works,” which appeared in the New York Times, July 13, 1912, might seem overwrought to contemporary readers in its definitive nature. The need to delineate work and nonwork, however, was quite serious business for Americans in the first decades of the 20th century. During this period, as evidenced in newspaper and journal articles, legislation, and popular culture, there was growing apprehension about the perceived differences and slippage among the ideas of the tramp, the hobo, the vagrant, the unemployed worker, and the worker. Most of this conversation was directed toward defining work and nonwork for men — specifically for white men. Tramping came to be viewed as an affliction of both mind and body, with writers, politicians, and reformers seeking to define the tramp and then theorizing how to put these newly codified bodies to work.
Some of the most complex images of joblessness from this period were produced by the Ashcan school of artists, who frequently portrayed jobless men in their paintings and drawings. The Ashcan school, a group of six realist painters who lived and worked in New York City from 1900 to the First World War, established a national reputation as radicals rebelling against what they argued was a conservative artistic community woefully out of touch with modern American life. Ashcan artists depicted what they claimed to be the realities of the city around them — busy streets, shopgirls, ethnic communities, construction workers, and prostitutes, as well as tramps. John Sloan's The Coffee Line, 1905 (Figure 1), is typical of the kinds of images that Ashcan artists produced. The scene is a snowy winter's night in New York with a band of men in line to get a free cup of coffee. Jobless men are the stars here; unwitting leads in Sloan's slice of New York City life. The painting did much to communicate nationally a visual image of the tramp in New York City; it won honorable mention in 1905 at the Carnegie Institute International Exposition and was then exhibited in Chicago; Spartanburg, South Carolina; Dallas; and Seattle.