Tramps of San Francisco

In search of San Francisco's forgotten histories

Why “Tramps?”

The name for my history blog, Tramps of San Francisco, is inspired by the unidentified young woman presented on the front page. On an unused postcard I purchased several years ago, and likely in her own handwriting, is her remembrance of a special day: “After a ten-mile tramp to Muir Woods, Marin Co. May 30 – 09, on the crest of a high hill.”

In today’s world, the word tramp conjures up an assortment of reactions. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the verb tramp (walk heavily, stamp; from Middle Low German trampen, to stamp) predates the noun tramp* (person who wanders about, vagabond) by about three centuries. Other words for tramp may include hike, trek, walk, traipse, and ramble.

The Victorian era (1837-1901) witnessed rapid innovation and growth. Those who became wealthy had the time and means to pursue leisure endeavors, while those who struggled just to meet their daily needs moved from place to place seeking new opportunities. This social disparity resulted in two types of tramps: the hobo, and the nature-loving romantic.

The journal article entitled The Ten Day Tramps (1982) quotes previously published descriptions of 19th century migrant work, “…  the tramping artisan … whose restless search for work took him all over 19th century England”; “the artisan’s equivalent of the Grand Tour.” Having lived the experience himself, author A-No. 1 (aka Leon Ray Livingston [1872-1944]) in the early 20th century referred to “…  the flotsam of that class of the ‘underworld,’ who, too proud to degrade themselves to the level of outright vagrancy while yet there was a chance to exchange long and weary hours of the hardest kind of labor for the right to earn an honorable existence, were nevertheless, included by critical society in that large clan of homeless drifters – The Tramps.”

On the other hand, upper-class Victorians tramped in a world of Bohemian romantic wonder. Charles Fletcher Lummis (1859-1928) was working as a newspaper man in Ohio when he accepted a job in California and decided to walk across the continent. His friends asked him, “But why tramp? Are there not railroads and Pullmans enough, that you must walk?” He responded, “But railroads and Pullmans were invented to help us hurry through life and miss most of the pleasure of it … I was after neither time nor money, but life … in the truer, broader, sweeter sense, the exhilarant joy of living … to learn more of the country and its people than railroad travel could ever teach; to have the physical joy which only the confirmed pedestrian knows; to have the mental awakening of new sights and experiences.”

In A Tramp Abroad (1880), Mark Twain (1835-1910) wrote of his “long pedestrian trip” across Europe: “We were out of bed at break of day, feeling fresh and vigorous, and took a hearty breakfast, then plunged down through the leafy arcades of the Castle grounds, toward the town. What a glorious summer morning it was, and how the flowers did pour out their fragrance, and how the birds did sing! It was just the time for a tramp through the woods and mountains.”

In fact, it was through the writings of Mark Twain and Bret Harte after the Gold Rush that inspired the Bohemian movement in San Francisco. In 1861, Bret Harte wrote in his Bohemian Papers, “Bohemia has never been located geographically, but any clear day when the sun is going down, if you mount Telegraph Hill, you shall see its pleasant valleys and cloud-capped hills glittering in the West.”  Gazing from a high hill in San Francisco 150 years later, these same emotions continue to resonate.

Whether poor or affluent, man or woman, tramping in the pedestrian manner is arguably the best way to seek and discover the many histories of San Francisco. Hence, the name Tramps of San Francisco.

* And, yes, the fact that the word tramp may also refer to a woman with so-called promiscuous tendencies cannot go without mentioning. Appearing in 1922 when women had won the right to vote and cultural norms were undergoing dramatic change, tramp may have been directed at the emerging concept of the independent, modern woman (or Flapper), “a young woman with bobbed hair and short skirts who drank, smoked and said what might be termed ‘unladylike’ things, in addition to being more sexually ‘free’ than previous generations.'” Perhaps it was this derogatory use of tramp that led to its demise as a reference to hiking.


  1. Tramp. Online Etymology Dictionary.
  2. Foster J. The ten day tramps. Labor History. 1982;23:621-633. Also available from the Arizona Pioneer & Cemetery  Research Project.
  3. A-No. 1 (Livingston LR). The Trail of the Tramp.[No date]. Available at
  4. Lummis CV. A Tramp Across the Continent. 1892. Charles Scribner’s Sons. Available at Google Books.
  5. Twain M. A Tramp Abroad. 1880. American Publishing Company. Available at
  6. Harte B. The Bohemian Papers. From Studies in Literature 7: Theatre West: Image and Impact. Ogden DH et al, editors. 1990. Available from Google Books.
  7. The Roaring Twenties. Available at

© 2012-2016. Evelyn Rose, Tramps of San Francisco.     Last update February 17, 2014.

2 ResponsesLeave one →

  1. Marion

     /  July 25, 2012

    I never read “Why “tramps””. I love it, I love old postcards too.


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