Inventing the Tramp: The Early Tramp Comic on the Variety Stage

Michelle Granshaw


This essay examines the “tramp” on the variety stage at the moment of its cultural invention. In the wake of the Panic of 1873, the dominant imagination first invented the specter of the tramp as the nation debated how to deal with the new masses of mobile unemployed. For the earliest comic tramps in the 1870s, Irish and blackface comedy created a visual vocabulary that offered a quickly recognizable stand-in for the seemingly invisible crime of unemployment. As the decade progressed, performers portrayed the most popular comic tramps as Irish, aligning mobility with whiteness and turning the comic tramp into a performance of racial privilege. The Irish-American tramp may have reflected many of the negative characteristics of the tramp, including his wandering nature, his unemployment, and his drinking, but he also showed that the Irish-American comic tramp could be part of a community and in some instances, even a hero.

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Popular Entertainment Studies ISSN 1837-9303