Friday, December 12, 2014

The Tramp Chair

At just over 5' 4" high and 2' wide, this is not a comfortable contraption. It was designed by Sanford J. Baker (1838-1905), a blacksmith from Oakland, Maine, sometime in the late 1800s. Reports variously state that Baker constructed 3 to 13 of his iron cages.  They were used to lock up "tramps," the old-school definition being male vagrants and "hobos" who were found wandering around town begging, sleeping in public places, or catching free rides on freight cars to move on to the next place.

The postcard above shows one of the chairs on the grounds of the Samoset Hotel, in Rockland, Maine, along with a caption describing the purpose of these devices.  Click on the image to read the caption.

The Tramp Chair was patented by Sanford Baker, and news of its creation reached across the country.  In the May 21, 1899 edition of the Los Angeles Herald, an article written by the inventor was published.  The article is a fascinating look at bias, discrimination and treatment of the destitute in 1899.  Here is a transcript:

IN TERROR Of THE TRAMP CHAIR The Inventor of a Remarkable Instrument Extinguishing the Wandering Willie Tribe Describes Its Successful Working in His Native Place

Apart from the professionalist humorist, who finds the tramp an Inexhaustible subject for jokes, no one has the slightest use for the hobos who infest our country roads and beg or steal for a living.  It Is good news, therefore, that a means has been found for squelching the pest. A worthy citizen has invented what he calls a tramp chair, which he claims is a never failing remedy for the hobo trouble. A picture of the chair Is shown accompanying the article that follows, which was written by the Inventor, especially for this newspaper.

Oakland, Me., May 10.—(Special Correspondence to The Herald.) The genus tramp has become an extinct animal in this locality since the adoption by tho town authorities of the tramp chair, of which I am the proud inventor. My pride is, I think, a pardonable one, for I live in a town that for years suffered abominably from the hobo nuisance; the Wandering Willie fraternity at times, in fact, became an unmitigated and dangerous evil and drove us to adopt extreme measures or be at the mercy of the vagabond loafer. Inspired with a desire to find means of freeing from this nuisance the community in which I was most interested I set my wits to work and evolved the tramp chair, which I will describe.

It is simply a strongly built cage in the form of a chair on wheels. It is so constructed that the occupant must remain perfectly quiet in a sitting position. A shelf is placed near the top for food and the contrivance can be handed about from place to place at will. The chief peculiarity of the chair lies in its door. When used as a method of punishment the culprit is obliged to enter it and sit down. The door, which is so constructed, that it follows the lines of the chair, is then closed and locked and the victim is confined as firmly as though he were glued to the seat. Another peculiar thing about the chair is that when the door is locked he cannot draw his feet up or move any part of his body enough to obtain rest. The chair resembles some of the ancient instruments of torture used by the Inquisition, in being only moderately formidable as to appearance, but a terror to those who are forced to spend only a few hours within its confines.

When I first introduced the chair to my surprised townspeople attempt after attempt was made to induce someone to sit in the chair as an experiment, but no one seemed to be willing to go back far enough in Puritanic days to allow himself to become a subject. As a last resort, to show its workings, by the assistance of a $5 bill I persuaded one man to enter the chair and remain there for two and a half hours. The victim remained in the chair for the length of time agreed, but at the end of his penance grasped the money with such alacrity that it was shown he considered he had earned the reward many times over.
Through the experiment it was shown that I had substantiated one of my claims that no man could remain in the chair for any length of time and when he was out of the chair say that he had been thoroughly comfortable or that he would be willing to repeat the experiment, even with a money consideration as the reward for the time he had spent doing nothing.

That suggestion of doing nothing is one of the strong points of the tramp chair idea, for the true hobo spends his life in studying new ways and means of accomplishing that greatest desire of his lazy soul—absolute inaction. To be wheeled about, in a chair like a big baby seems to him to be the acme of slothful ease. He steps in for his first ride in the chair with alacrity, finds it not unpleasant for the first ten minutes, then begins to feel uncomfortable, gets cramped and finds his bones aching, and before the end of an hour's ride he is yelling murder and dynamite and promising all kinds of reformation if only he can get out. When his punishment is over and he is finally released the tramp makes a bee line for the open country and thenceforth comes nowhere near the town that chairs its tramp guests through the streets. I hope some day to get the Maine legislature to adopt the tramp chair punishment for use throughout the state. It is a sure cure in every case.

Two tramp chairs have been in the Oakland lockup for some time. In proof of their usefulness I quote two reports, one from Augusta, a neighboring town, and one from Oakland. On February 3, 1890, the following report was printed in Augusta: "City Marshal Morse gave a nightly lodging to 275 wanderers during the month of January, thirty having been sheltered on a single night." The Oakland report for February 1, 1899, says: "A tramp was given lodging in the lockup Sunday night. Oakland has been quite free from tramps this winter, this being the first that has asked for lodging for several months."

Just think of the difference; 275 tramps in one short month in Augusta, and only one here in Oakland, where the tramp chair was invented and kept on exhibition in our lockup for tramps to look It looks as though the chair had surely got the beat of the tramps.

In a number of cases reliable men have told me that tramps inquired in their hearing what town this was, and on being told that it was Oakland said: "What! Is this where the tramp chair is?" The bystander told them it was. "Well, then," answered the tramp, "we will not stop here," and went on.

Our lawmakers have racked their brains for the last fifteen years to make laws that would drive the tramp from Maine, but everything except the tramp chair has proved a failure. I will pay any man or woman $100 if they will produce one tramp that I cannot cure of tramping if I can have control of the case. The tramp chair is the only thing ever invented by mortal man that a tramp ever feared. Not even powder and ball, for two can play at that game, and with the chair only one.

A tramp is a man traveling, pretending to be looking for work and praying to God all the time that he may never find any. As long as the tramp is looking for a job just invite him to sit in the chair instead of sawing wood to pay for food and lodging, two and one-half hours at a time, and see if he wants to repeat the experiment.

The tramp tax of the sixteen counties of Maine in the year 1898, according to the state report amounted to $64,508. Just think of the enormous expense to each county that has villages and has a large population. Nearly one-third of all our county tax is to pay the tramps' board for thirteen or fourteen weeks in jail every year. The jail is the tramps' home in winter. This has been proved by the county reports of two of our counties that have no jails—Piscataquis and Sagadahoc. They have no tramps in winter because they have no jails; consequently the tramps keep clear of these two counties in winter because they have no jails and goes to his winter home in some other county where the jailer smacks his chops at the sight of his powerful lever— the tramp—the man that the county towns to send to jail in hopes of getting rid of them, a few weeks, even at the enormous tax that must be levied on the taxpayer and must be paid in money. Isn't that a potent argument in favor of my tramp chair?

Anything more that I can do to aid the people in getting rid of tramps will be cheerfully done. SANFORD J. BAKER.

Reading the article, one can't help compare the attitude of Mr. Baker to the attitudes that exist today towards those who are below the radar, so to speak.  While there are always people who are unmotivated or unable to contribute to their own well-being or that of society, there are many more who are not satisfied with their position but have difficulty pulling it together and raising themselves up.  Mr. Baker painted with a very broad brush in 1899, as some do today.  But, I was elated to find this letter to the editor of the Los Angeles Herald, 3 days after the above article was published, by someone who wished to straighten him out:

Walter, thanks for speaking up!

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