“About seven o’clock one hot summer evening a strange family moved into the little village of Middlesex. Nobody knew where they came from, or who they were. But the neighbors soon made up their minds what they thought of the strangers, for the father was very drunk.”
So begins the original version of The Box-Car Children, written by the 34-year-old schoolteacher Gertrude Chandler Warner in 1924. The book, about four siblings who run away from home after their parents die, would become a hugely popular series—with 146 books to date and an animated movie.
In the first book, the children hide from passing horse-drawn carts and trains, sleep in a haystack and soon come to the woods, where Jess, the older girl, spots a box car sitting on rusty, broken rails. Warner writes, “Her first thought was one of fear; her second, hope for shelter.” The children decide to make it their new home.
Picking up the original Box-Car Children today, the story is still an appealing one. But one element is lost on modern readers: The selection of a boxcar in which to play house seems somewhat random. For readers coming to the book in the 1920s, though, that choice might have seemed more natural. That’s because the image of another boxcar dweller, the rambling tramp or hobo, jolly and free of society’s oppressive norms, was everywhere. At the time Warner was writing the book, “hobohemia” was in a nostalgic moment. The comical, friendly hobo appeared in folk songs, vaudeville acts, novels, and was brought to life in films. Charlie Chaplin got his idea for one of his most famous characters—the Tramp—when he met a hobo in San Francisco.
The nostalgia for hobos that would have surrounded Warner and her young readers in the 1920s emerged because the stereotypical train-riding, scrappy migrant worker—who came out of the Civil War, when displaced soldiers began a transient life on the road—was disappearing. For one thing, the extent of the rail system reached a peak in 1916 and then declined as automobiles took over the landscape. The American economy shifted, making it harder for migrant workers to make a living. Historian Todd Depastino calls this “the closing of the wageworkers’ frontier.” He writes in Hobo Citizen that, “the age of speedup and mass communications had marginalized hobohemia, leaving it behind like a deserted right-of-way or a sidetracked boxcar.”
You can read hints of romanticized trampdom in The Box-Car Children. If readers of the children’s book series don’t remember any appearance of tramps in the books, that’s because Warner took it out of the 1942 version of the story, which she…