Puck magazine cartoon, 1879

Many American cities have faced the quandary of how to deal with panhandlers. (This issue is sometimes confused with the problem of the homeless; some panhandlers are homeless, many are not.) Neighborhood homeowners find their presence an irritant and fear that they depress property values; shop owners suspect that they scare away customers; and tourists who encounter panhandlers in, say, San Francisco’s theater district, swear they won’t come back until the “problem is cleaned up.”

Puck magazine cartoon, 1879

This is not a new problem (although it may have resurged in the last generation or so). This cartoon published in the magazine, Puck, dates from 1879. The character in the left corner, Puck, is complaining to a city official, “If you can’t remove these people from the streets [to the institutions depicted in the background] on the score of Charity, do it for Decency’s sake.”

One way that 19th-century Chicago (and other cities) tried to manage the problem was euphemistic. As Adrienne Phelps Coco describes in a recent article, the city passed an “ugly law,” trying to drive unattractive people from the public streets.

Ugly not wanted

In 1881, Chicago passed an “ugly law” that read, in part:

Any person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated or in any way deformed so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object . . . shall not therein or thereon expose himself or herself to public view under penalty of one dollar for each offense.

Professor Coco argues that, in the end, the concern was not that people were revolted by the sight of the maimed and mutilated. Nineteenth-century Americans accepted and even honored disfigured Civil War veterans; they also increasingly paid to see “freaks” on display at carnivals. The issue, Coco argues (and the Puck cartoon supports), was beggars using their injuries – or feigned injuries – to extract money from passersby.

Poor not wanted

The public was hostile to mendicants, hoboes, and the poor generally. Newspaper writers assumed that the beggars were lazy, described many as “vermin” coming to America from eastern and southern Europe, and demanded that the authorities get them off the streets. Officials argued that charity itself “along with the indiscriminate handouts given by benevolent citizens [was] the root cause of the tramp crisis.” “Pauperism grows by what it feeds on,” one agency report concluded. “If any man will not work, neither let him eat.”

elderly panhandler

Public opinion held that even the seriously disabled should work for their food, typically at menial labor in almshouses. Those almshouses themselves were kept uninviting, less the lazy be attracted there. One report described the Chicago almshouse as surrounded by human waste because of inadequate latrines.

Indeed, for much of the 18th and 19th century, the well-heeled public was suspicious of what were called “the strolling poor” and then the train-riding poor (and in the twentieth-century, the jalopy-driving poor — the “Oakies” of the Great Depression). The general assumption was that these folks were dissolute, disreputable dependents. Some may well have been, but most were displaced — by economic hard times, agricultural disasters, and other misfortunes. One historian wrote that the ““Tramps were… the ordinary working people of the United States on the move between jobs and residences.” (See, also this history and that one.)

In practice, Chicago’s ugly law was not much enforced and was forgotten, until someone noticed that it was still on the books and the city repealed it in 1973. Coco argues that the law was not really about being ugly but about being poor. We still face the ugly issue of poverty and of pubic panhandling, but it looks like we have come some distance since the solution was to ban the unsightly poor and virtually imprison them in institutions.

(Note: Berkeley English Professor Susan Schweik, an author on The Berkeley Blog, wrote a noteworthy book on the ugly laws from the point of view of disability studies.)

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.