Would not a hobo be protective about their few belongings? Why put it on a stick and carry it over your shoulder, for anyone to grab?

Why not simply walk with it in your hands, like a bag? Don't you still get the same weight/pressure? And you still need one hand to hold the stick, so it doesn't free up your hands either way.

I assume that a backpack is too modern or too expensive to work for a hobo of the kind I envision, who would likely be living somewhere in the late 19th century or early 20th century. (Also, a backpack, while freeing up both hands, is also easy to steal from.)

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    It's the cheapest way to carry their stuff? Also, I think it is bit of a stereotype. I'm not sure what you expect here from us as historians. Can you clarify? – Lars Bosteen May 20 '20 at 9:23
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    Your assumption is partly correct (stealth not so much a thing while carrying). Even in the 1970s few school kids had backpacks from plastic fabric because expensive. They were from cloth or leather, thus heavier. On a long hike, carrying a bag on a stick over the shoulder is simply less strenous than tearing the arm long or sweating under the leather. Try it out :-) This worth an answer ? – user43870 May 20 '20 at 9:35
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    Surely over the shoulder is an easier load than holding in your hands. For one thing, your hand only has to keep the stick more or less in place, not to hang on to it against gravity. – Semaphore May 20 '20 at 9:42
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    I think this question is based on too many assumptions. 1) You're assuming the thief is willing to risk a confrontation by snatching the bag, rather than waiting for it to be unattended. 2) You're assuming that it is easier to snatch a bag on a stick than a bag in the hand, 3) you're assuming the stereotype is based on reality. – Mark C. Wallace May 20 '20 at 10:51

In a world where you don't have access to a backpack, and thus have to use one hand, the sensible thing to do would be to build some kind of machine to help you lift the load. Since you're broke, you're going to be making this machine yourself by hand with whatever is laying around, which means it needs to be a simple machine.

There are (classically) 6 types of simple machines: lever, wheel and axle, pulley, inclined plane, wedge, and screw.

the last 3 don't really apply in this situation, the wheel won't work well off-road, and pulleys require a lot of parts, which leaves us with the lever:

A lever works in combination with a fulcrum to allow a large weight to be lifted using only a fraction of the force it would require to lift it by hand, at the cost of having to move your hand further to do it. All the weight itself still has to get supported by the fulcrum.

enter image description here

So in the case of our hobo, he can heft 100 kg of gear* with only 5 kg of force on his arm. His legs are then supporting the entire 100kg, but those the are the largest, strongest muscles in his body, already used to supporting his own weight all day.

If he was just hefting a sack without any mechanical help, that would be the entire 100kg using his arms, which is mostly something only weightlifters want to do, and then only briefly, not all day.

All that's required for this is a stick that won't break under the weight, and a scrap of cloth big and strong enough to hold everything.

* - 100 KG is probably too heavy by half, but that's the weight used in the graphic I found, so I'm sticking to it to avoid confusion

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    Really, Do post the question on physics SE ! It is a common mistake to only look at one side of the problem: the same force the muscles produce to pull the stick down, they take from the other end where they are fixed (in this case to the chest). Nothing comes for free, like, how do i transport that, you can't stretch one end of a rubber band only, you need to fix the other. continues – user43870 May 20 '20 at 18:35
  • @a_donda - Yeah, I think the nitty physics details for exactly how this helps is going to have to go over to Physics.SE. But it does help. – T.E.D. May 20 '20 at 18:43
  • Let us continue this discussion in chat.* Please respect the move to chat for further comment about the nitty physics issues.* – T.E.D. May 20 '20 at 18:44
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    For that reason the Romans used the furca, not a backpack. – Jos May 21 '20 at 4:16
  • "100 KG is probably too heavy by half" make it a factor of 5 or 10. The limiting factor is the downward force that the arm/hand needs to excercise: holding (primarily) by the weight of the arm is fine, but endurance downward force there is something we hardly train. @Jos: reading about the furca lets me conclude that it is not a good example for this question. A furca resting on the scutum which is strapped to the back goes quite far towards "backpack". Also the leverage situation is more favorable. – cbeleites unhappy with SX May 23 '20 at 11:03

Note that this is not limited to homeless people, but to anybody hiking without modern backpacking equipment that's available since a few decades. We partly hiked like this back in the 70s, and surely people did in the 19th century, if they weren't marching infantry of sorts who need free hands for their business.

The part why it is easier to carry a weight on a stick over the shoulder (realistic values would be between 5 and 20kg, 30 are already a veritable military marching pack) has already been answered. Note that the support point at the shoulder should be lined with a cloth or so to avoid rubbing, especially for us modern guys who don't have muscles there, compared to a marching Roman legion with their furcas :-)

Apart from modern day city life, robbing is not so much a thing when hiking out there. The bundle is usually fastened with a knot, to avoid sliding and thus sudden change in center of mass. Thus the arm rests effortlessly as a counterweight, you'd feel it if somebody grabs the bundle. When in civilized areas, the purse should be close to the body ofc.

Hiking for hours with a bag in hand is strenous, it tears the arm, cuts the fingers, needs constant balance and muscle tension in the shouder to avoid banging against the legs. It is not an option to carry 10kg in a dangling bag over longer distances than a few km. Also the bag at the side is less protected from damage compared to being carried over the shoulder.

One arm is occupied balancing the stick, that is true. But that's an effortless thing and the arms aren't needed anyway when hiking. One watches one's feet. The total mass (body + bundle) doesn't change either, but the dynamics of balancing are simply easier with the weight stabilized high on the body (valid for the stick as well as a backback) than with it dangling at the side.

tl, dr: When modern equipment isn't available, carrying a weight over the shoulder is the natural and most energy efficient way.

See also: the yoke.

  • German language Wikipedia de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Furca_(Tragestange) says the Roman furca rested on the shield (scutum) which was strapped to the back. This means that only part of the pack weight needs to be countered by the hand/arm holding the furca down, and in turn that the practical pack weight increases considerably. – cbeleites unhappy with SX May 23 '20 at 10:44
  • @cbeleitesunhappywithSX I wouldn't take such an article by the word. It doesn't even cite. trajans-column.org/… (3rd last). But i wouldn't even take Trajan's pillar by the ... carving. I am not a specialist in Roman times. What matters is, it was carried over the shoulder. – user43870 May 23 '20 at 11:43

The term "hobo" is possibly a reference to "hoe boy," per author Todd de Pastino*. These were what we would now call "migrant workers," who made their living travelling with hoes on their shoulders, seeking work from local farms. The opening of the country by railroads around the time of the Civil War helped make this a viable way of life.

Given that these men needed to carry hoes, anyway, attaching their goods to the end of these hoes made sense. The hoe was a "lever," which could lessen the burden of the weight being carried on it. See Archimedes Law. It was also less clumsy than carrying goods with two hands.

There was only a small (but greater than zero) danger of their goods being stolen because these were just their personal effects, typically of the poorest quality. Because they were "poor," (and seen as such), they were the "last" people anyone would want to steal from.

*Note: Todd de Pastion is a prize winning, multiple published author with a PhD from an Ivy League University.

  • Your alleged etymology is wholly unsupported both by Wikipedia and Webster's. – Pieter Geerkens May 22 '20 at 21:24
  • @PieterGeerkens: From Wikipedia: "Author Todd DePastino has suggested it may be derived from the term hoe-boy." It is not "wholly unsupported." Added author's name to my post. – Tom Au May 22 '20 at 21:36
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    The fanciful inventions of one author, 150 years after the fact and without any attestations in literature, are not support no matter how much you would like the hypothesis to be true. For all you know Postino wrote that into the Wiki article himself to publicize his book. – Pieter Geerkens May 22 '20 at 22:12
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    In fact, what Todd DePastino said in the interview cited as source by Wikipeida was: "Where did the word "hobo" come from? I've not found a convincing explanation. Some say it derives from the term "hoe-boy," meaning farm hand, or "homo bonus," meaning "good man." Others speculate that men shouted "Ho, Boy!" to each other on the road. One particularly literate wayfarer insisted the term came from the French "haut beau"." (my emphasis) – sempaiscuba May 23 '20 at 11:41
  • Did agricultural labourers really carry their own tools (like hoes) in the US in the 19th century? I've always assumed they were provided by the farmers (which is why inventories compiled when wills were being proved often list so many of each type of implement in farm stores). – sempaiscuba May 23 '20 at 22:05

Stereotype is probably an important point here (see alternatives below). The majority of images I found when googling for hobo photos were recent (and most were related to "comedy" or the like).

This article/photo collection about early 20th century hobos shows a wide variety of packs/bundles - including 1(!) bindle on a stick.

While I don't have much knowledge about real American hobo traditions, there are several alternatives that also don't require much invention nor expensive gear.

When is it convenient to carry your bundle on a stick?

  • when you don't need your stick as hiking stick
  • when the bundle has the right weight.
    I argue that this is actually pretty narrow weight range: other answers already explain the leverage background in general. Let's dig a bit into details. My personal experience with carrying (small) trees on the shoulder suggest: carrying a pole-like thing on a shoulder is most convenient if the wrist of the almost extended arm/hand lies/holds on it with maybe a slight downward force. But the main source of the force is the weight of the arm. We may very roughly say that the weight resting on that point is maybe 3.5 kg (basis for estimate). The length of this lever is maybe 50 - 60 cm (for me).
    At the back side, the bundle has a certain size as well. Assuming the bundle to be at a lever length of maybe 20 cm, we get a force ratio of somewhere around 1 : 2.5 to 1 : 3. That would mean a pack of up to 8 - 10 kg.

    I just did a quick experiment with a broom stick, and a shopping bag into which I put milk. 5 kg was nice, 8 kg gave a doable impression, 10 kg already needed extra force - this would soon become very inconvenient.
    However, the milk packs are very dense. Hobos would not carry milk bags or similar, they'd have stuff like a blanket: more volume means that the pack would have its center of mass further from the shoulder, so the convenient weight would be correspondingly less. A WWI army blanket is already about 2.5 kg.

  • If the pack is very light, you can put it further back and have your back free so you don't get sweaty. This does not work with heavier packs.

This pack fits the bill:
hobo image from wikimedia commons (source)
You can also see that there isn't that much to steal.

Alternatives used in other parts of the world.

Tying one's belongings into a sheet of cloth is also a traditional technique of (Central) European journeymen. Here are some recent images:

Wandergepäck (source)

This pack is likely outside the convenient weight range for carrying on the stick (there are also tools in the pack): it is used with shoulder bag and the stick is used as hiking stick.

German language Wikipedia about the Charlottenburger (the cloth to wrap the pack) claims that the tradition to have a bundle in a sheet of cloth arouse because Charlottenburg banned the usual packs (similar to messenger bags, or army rucksacks) as a measure of infection/parasite control.

I'd expect to find Central European images of a bundle carried on a stick rather in the context of a pleasure day-hike or the like (maybe Wandervogel?).

Similar technique in Australia for their variety of wandering (agricultural) laborer:

Australian swagman (source)

Last but not least, if the loads become yet larger and heavier, pack frames and basket constructions have been used for thousands of years, and also here poor mans versions were likely home made from wood that was collected in the surroundings. Possibly even with the shoulder straps plaited from willow (likely: if one couldn't afford a leather strap):

pack frame (source)


It's simply a comfortable and cheap way of carrying heavy loads over long distances.

Whilst I haven't seen any hobos doing this today, I have seen people doing something similar in Bangladesh. They use a bamboo pole over their shoulder with the goods hanging off ropes at either end. This means that they can carry heavier loads as they balance each other. Moreover, as a bamboo pole is elastic to a certain degree, it means that they walk with a gait matched to the rhythm of the goods swinging at either end and so preserving energy as they walk.

So it's unlikely to be 'stereotypical' but based upon actual practise, especially when woodlands and rural life were more common in Europe than they are now.

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