In the collector’s world, there is a category known as “tramp art,” which includes wire kitchen utensils with a unique bottle-washer end. These were handmade by tramps, or hobos, who rode the railcars circa the 1930s.

There were two periods in American history when men camped and traveled by railcar, even though it was illegal and extremely dangerous.

The first period started after the Civil War. Many rail lines had been built to transport war supplies and troops, primarily in the North.

Returning soldiers hopped freight trains to get home, and many, facing the shame of unemployment and poverty at home, pursued work on the American frontier. Men joined crews building the transcontinental railroad, which was completed in Promontory, Utah, in 1869.

The second period of freight hopping, as it was called, was during the Depression era of the 1930s. Unemployed men decided to crisscross the country on the freight trains looking for work wherever they could find it.

Most hobos would hide along the tracks outside the railyard. They’d run along the train as it gained speed, grab hold, and jump into open boxcars. They risked being thrown off by sudden turns or stops.

This train-hopping lifestyle had a social caste system of hobos, tramps, and bums.  


  • Hobos were migratory workers. There were hobo camps along the tracks, and men moved from job to job with some extended breaks.
  • Tramps were men who did not seek work but would make and barter crafts. The hobos and tramps were the creators of the bottle-washer utensils.
  • Bums were men who did not work, nor barter. Often the drunkard, they rode the rails to get out of town.


During the 1889 National Hobo Convention, an ethical code of conduct was created, setting forth laws to govern the nationwide Hobo Body. It included:


1. Always try to find work, even if temporary, and always seek out jobs nobody wants. By doing so, you not only help a business along, but you also ensure employment should you return again.


2. When no employment is available, make your own work by using your talents at crafts.


This takes us to the wire kitchen utensils, tramp art, which were bartered with the housewife for a meal, money, or perhaps a night’s rest in the barn.

Two pieces of medium-gauge wire were folded in half and formed into a spoon, or spatula, on the folded end. The four exposed ends of the wires were held with a wire collar that would slide to open, or lock, the wire “fingers” that gripped a rag for washing bottles or lamp chimneys.

A wire-twisting gadget existed during this period that must have been used to produce the tight and consistent wrapping of the wire handle. The quality of the work varied, from primitive to finely crafted pieces.

It is rare to find a handmade wire bottle washer today. If you see one, check that there is no soldering, as the hobos and tramps did not have the ability to solder in the rail camps. Soldering could be a later repair or the telltale sign of a reproduction.  

As a side note, over 250,000 adolescent boys rode the rails in the 1930s to escape poverty or troubled families or to seek a grand adventure. Society’s attitude was that the boys should be encouraged to return home, and thus people would not give them work or assist them.

These artifacts are material evidence of hard times in our American history and yet remind us of the ingenuity of the human spirit under duress.


Doris Montag is a homespun historian and an exhibit curator who researches and displays historical collections of ordinary things, such as can openers, crochet, toy sewing machines, hand corn planters, powder compacts, egg cartons, and more. Contact or follow her on Facebook, HistoryofOrdinaryThings.

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