Building Community through Shared History - A KU Memorial Union Program

No More Hobohemia

It was not exactly a bum’s rush, but the unexpected ending of Hobo Day seemed sudden and sorrowful to at least some members of the KU community.

“Sadly the University laments the passing of one of its finest traditions,” the University Daily Kansan editorialized on November 22, 1939, when it became clear that Hobo Day was to be no more. “For seventeen years students have been enjoying this yearly festival of rags…No longer will we experience an expression of the idealism that is inherent in all youth.”

Yet what the Kansan thought of as idealism, University officials knew could often become a near riot. Each year in late fall from 1923 on, many KU students had marked this day by dressing in boorish Hobo costumes and dreaming up all manner of street theatre celebrations. The wild party atmosphere of Hobo Day swept all parts of campus; for years the University even supported the occasion by canceling afternoon classes.

With all that, the end of Hobo Day came about inadvertently. In 1939 a student group petitioned the University Senate to cancel classes so that students might attend the national cornhusking championship held near Lawrence. The Senate, which surely contained faculty who wished to see Hobo Day disbanded, voted to substitute the Hobo Day vacation for the cornhusking championship.

Although a few students belatedly tried to revive the custom, this administrative end run was not to be reversed. As the Kansan noted, the event fostered school spirit, but “in that it provided students an excuse for cutting classes needlessly, for destroying property, and for causing a great deal of unnecessary trouble, its passing is to be acclaimed.”

Hobo Day began with the age-old undergraduate need for beer money. In 1894, KU’s campus was site of a convention of used clothes buyers. Students rushed to swap their old duds for cash, badly needed given that the-then annual “beer bust” in Kansas City was quickly approaching. The clothiers did brisk business, and decided to make their stop in Lawrence an annual affair.

Enterprising students soon developed the idea of combining the beer bust with a special event that featured old clothes, and Hobo Day was born. Prohibition briefly derailed the celebration, but in 1923 students reinvented the tradition as a massive pep rally held before the annual Kansas-Missouri football game.

The rehabilitated event featured students dressed in outlandish Hobo costumes, pep rallies, dances, bonfires and, at times, property damage and fisticuffs between students and professors. An article in the Kansan described the required outfit: “Old clothes, the older the better, plenty of paint, burnt cork, and…a corn-cob pipe are the main essential of makeup of a good ‘hobo.’” A red bandana carrying one’s worldly possession was recommended, but not considered absolutely essential.

Soon, the raucous events became an integral part of homecoming festivities. The Kansan reported on particularly successful Hobo Day in 1925 in which Missouri’s tiger mascot was captured “with the aid of hounds” as it was “perched in a tree…The beast was executed and then dragged to convocation.”

In its time, participation in Hobo Day was a virtual requirement. “The students who thinks himself out of the hobo class,” warned the Kansan in November 1934, “is apt to lose his clothes and perhaps his dignity.” The Kansas City Star, writing with a sense of bemused wonder, dubbed the Hobo Day atmosphere “Hobohemia.”

From the beginning the raucous Hobo Day combined pep rallies with street theatre. In 1919, two students founded Doc Yak’s Medicine Show, which soon became a Hobo Day staple. Doc Yak imitated the medical hucksters of so-called Patent Medicines (which were usually neither patented nor medicinal) by combining the instincts of the carnival barker with the latest in medical quackery. He advertised himself as a “Purveyor of Pink Pills for Pale People” and held massive on-campus rallies. Taking Doc Yak’s medicine was said to ensure a KU victory.

Perhaps fueled by too many pink pills, student Hobo Day behavior crossed the line from rowdiness to criminality more than once. Hobos raided grocery delivery trucks in 1926, and the resulting food fight included the collateral damage of professors hit with flying food. Other reports noted that a “hobo” and a professor engaged in “hand to hand scuffle.”

Little wonder that in 1926 the Graduate Magazine warned that Hobo Day “smacked almost too much of the real hobo spirit and may have wrecked a well-formed custom.” In 1932 law students attempted to wreck the well-formed Hobo Day custom by wearing fine clothes replete with rose boutonnieres to a Hobo Day rally. The ensuing battle between law students and those dressed in traditional attire raged until broken up by an assistant football coach.

Consequently, it is no surprise then, that the University Senate seized its chance to quash the hobo festivities. And yet one writer for the Kansan spared no rhetorical extravagance while lamenting the passing of this wild tradition.

“Student loyalty to the University will stagger under a death blow,” editorialized the paper; “The good of this institution to posterity may be blotted out forever. For loyalty is based on tradition, and loyalty assures the preservation of the school. It is with streaming tears, therefore, that the student body sees in the abolishing of Hobo Day the first step toward a desecration of the sanctity of tradition.”

Kevin Armitage
Department of History
University of Kansas

Source Notes

[Source Notes: The literature on Hobo Day is sparse. In the University of Kansas archives see scrap book 71, vol. 4, p. 10-12, and scrapbook 00t, vol. 1 p. 22,52,63,68,90 and vol. 2 p. 4 and 5. Also see record group 71/9 for pictures. In the scrapbooks one will find articles from the Kansas City Star, December 6 1931; University Daily Kansan, November 2, 1931; November 23, 1933; November 4 1934; November 14, 1934; November 16, 1934; November 1, 1939; November 22, 1939; Jayhawker, 1934; Lawrence Journal World, November 19, 1931; November 26, 1936. See also articles in the Graduate Magazine, 25:4, 1926; and Kansas Alumni 80:8, 1982.]