Of back doors and “shiftless tourists”

There was a time when back doors served a well-defined purpose in the Laramie home. First, and most importantly, it was the route to the “backhouse,” otherwise known as the privy, john, necessary or whatever euphemism served the purpose.

 Tradesmen call

But secondly, it was also the tradesman’s entry to the home. The grocery wagon driver would never call on the front door with the goods he had been ordered to deliver. Also not daring to come to the front door would be the iceman, the peddler, the coal delivery man or most anyone else who had business with the woman of the house or her cook.

 Boomerang editor Bill Nye wrote a humorous piece in the late 1800s about the inconveniences of coal delivery, when the driver, his horse, wagon or mule would trample the garden and knock down fences as he delivered fuel. Soon a side chute directly to the basement furnace was added to homes as central coal-fired heating became common.

 In Laramie, children of widows would go to back doors offering butter, jams, hand painted china or other homemade goods that were the only source of income in those days before pensions or Social Security. A mannequin representing one such child is currently on display in the kitchen of the Ivinson Mansion, depicting a youngster invited by the cook to sit at the table and eat a bun in return for bringing his mother’s butter.

 The iceman delivers

The iceman in particular usually stopped at the back door, for the back porch was where the “refrigerator” as it was called then was located; that way muddy boots didn’t track all through the kitchen.  There might have been a drain that went directly through the floor to the ground underneath. Other refrigerator models had a spigot or drip pan under the box inside that held the ice; it had to be emptied daily.

 Now we refer to the entire unit as the “icebox” to differentiate it from the electric refrigerator. In Laramie, the back porch icebox location also had the advantage of making the ice last longer than if it were in the heated kitchen. That was advantageous in Laramie, not so in hot climates where the kitchen might be located in a separate building to keep heat away from the interior.

 For the convenience of back door callers, there would usually be a paved walkway that went from the front walk to the back door, unless the house was on an alley, typical of many homes in the oldest part of Laramie.

 Tramps also call

It was also to the back door that a tramp might call, looking for a free meal from the cook, sometimes offering to do odd jobs to earn the meal. Today a desperate homeless person would probably not think to knock on a random back door looking for food.

 But in the late 1800s tramps were common in any railroad town like Laramie. They did search for handouts at back doors, hopping off trains when they got hungry and looking for smoke indicating a lighted cook stove. Using back doors also helped them elude Pinkerton detectives hired to deter them from hitching a free ride in a boxcar.

 On September 14, 1875, the Laramie Sentinel reported that in Greeley, Colorado the town was so pestered with tramps that residents “look with suspicion upon everyone that knocks at the back door.”

 One wag communicated to the Sentinel in April of 1878 that a sure sign of spring was the appearance of the “migratory tramp….once again seen and heard at our back doors as in times past.”

 The word “tramp” comes from the German “trampen,” to trample. “Bum” is also German, from “bummeln,” meaning to stroll or wander. In popular usage around the turn of the 19th century, there was considerable difference between the two, with the tramp a vagabond, intentionally free of encumbrances and willing to work to earn food. A bum, on the other hand, was someone thought to be lazy and inclined to steal. After 1900, the term “hobo” turns up more commonly to describe both.

 Some communities tried “make work” projects for dealing with tramps. In January of 1879 the Sentinel reported: “The tramp question has been solved in New Hampshire and Rhode Island. In Providence tramps are set cutting wood, fed, lodged and paid fifty cents per day….A large stone pile and a law in every State compelling vagabonds to break stone and earn the food they eat will convert this army from tramphood into respectable manhood.”

 Tramps become hoboes

 “Hoboes caused no end of annoyance for city marshal Stirling,” reported the Laramie Republican newspaper in 1899. The local papers then were full of reports of hoboes who were jailed for the night in Laramie and sent on their way the next morning. Undoubtedly that was just what they wanted—a bed for the night and a free meal even if it was just bread and water.

 Where that word “hobo” comes from is lost—it is a uniquely American term. A Webster’s Dictionary of 1957 says it comes from the traditional greeting of French-speaking vagrants: “ho! beaux!” Another suggestion is that it is a contraction of “hoe-boys,” from migrant agricultural workers of pre-1900 America.

 Do we still use the word “hobo” today? The legal term appears to be “vagrant” and the old vagrancy laws that criminalized being homeless have generally been struck down as unconstitutional. In Laramie, there are no vagrancy or loitering laws, but a curfew of 10:30 p.m. (12 midnight on weekends) applies to minors under the age of 17.

 Anyone knocking on front or back doors for a “contribution” (handout) is considered a “solicitor” today in Laramie’s city code. The city does not issue permits for going door to door.  Its legal here so long as no more than two persons knock and it is between the hours of 9 a.m. and 9 p.m.—unless a “no solicitors” sign is posted or the occupant asks them to leave.  

 Hobo mecca--Chicago

All roads (that is, railroads) led to Chicago for the American hobo—the Encyclopedia of Chicago says that in the early 1900s, thousands of migratory workers hopped freight cars there, headed to the harvest or logging camps of the Midwest. Reformer and physician Ben Reitman founded Chicago’s “hobo college” in 1908 for the men of the road to gather to swap stories and listen to lectures on “everything from philosophy and politics to personal hygiene and vagrancy laws.” It lasted for 30 years.

 One descriptive term was “shiftless tourists” for the hordes of boxcar riders who became even more prevalent with the many economic downturns affecting parts of the U.S., especially during the Great Depression. “They do still exist, these days it’s not unusual to find them camping out for the night in the park south of the Laramie depot,” says Jerry Hansen, former president of the Laramie depot museum.

 Side door Pullman

Most tramps or hoboes were men. But a Boomerang writer in 1920 describes the arrival in Laramie of an infamous “lady hobo,” Louise Glenn. “Miss Glenn arrived yesterday afternoon on a side door Pullman, more commonly known as a freight car,” said the writer. The story, which appeared on May 19, though buried on page 8, was apparently designed to promote interest in the “little skit at the Opera House” that she was scheduled to put on that night.

 Miss Glenn was described in the Boomerang as “a self-professed hobo, [who] seems polished and polite to the extreme, and a young lady of excellent manners. She states that she is an actress and that for a little diversion she has decided to bum her way over the country. She has many interesting stories to tell, and seems to enjoy life in the extreme except when she has to ride the cushions.”

 The next day she arrived in Cheyenne and was reported in the Wyoming State Tribune to be in the company of Harold Pond, the “gentleman hobo.” The paper said he met Miss Glenn “in Laramie and they joined fortunes to complete their trip” which was to end in Washington D.C.

 There Miss Glenn intended to present her letter of introduction to the First Lady, Mrs. Wilson. The Tribune story reveals that she claimed that $3,000 would be hers if she completed the coast-to-coast trip. She accepted the wager that required her to earn her way across the country; her companion said he had already won the bet and was headed east to collect it.

 Back doors again

At the turn of the century, the carriage house or stable was already in the back yard of more prosperous homes to keep the smells and the flies further away. Were those first cars smelly? Were car owners concerned that the internal combustion engine would spontaneously catch fire? Maybe so, but it was probably simply an adaptation of the older building for the newer technology.

 An undated publication of the Michigan State Extension Service published online says that garages started to be attached to houses in the 1920s, but really caught on after WW II when suburb development required every home to have an automobile.

 Today the back door is often the family entrance to a home; sometimes it’s a side door or the entry from the attached garage. A sure sign of an older Laramie home is one in which the garage is a separate building in the back yard.

 If a home does have an actual back door today, it is the exit to the back yard, the outdoor hub of family life. A homeowner today would no doubt be very startled should anyone come knocking at the back door, let alone at the front door, which hardly anyone uses in 2019. But that’s another story.

By Judy Knight

Caption: A proud “leisurely tourist” ragged and unwashed though he be, illustrates an 1892 Boomerang story describing the origins of the “only original American, the tramp. Source: Laramie Boomerang, October 29, 1892

Caption:  The back door to the 1892 Ivinson Mansion is on the east side, opening onto a porch where the icebox might have been located.  There was no outdoor privy, however—this “modern” house had indoor plumbing when built.Source:  Judy Knight, Boomerang contributor

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