A Runaway Word: “Bindlestick”

I've recently been enjoying Christopher Miller’s American Cornball: A Laffopedic Guide to the Formerly Funny, a fascinating encyclopedia of old-fashioned comic imagery.

I was particularly intrigued by the article “Bindlesticks” which discusses cartoons depicting hoboes and runaway children carrying their meager possessions in a bundle dangling from the end of a stick carried over the shoulder.

Miller comments, “As for the stick itself, was that ever really the easiest and most comfortable way for runaways and hoboes to carry their belongings? Couldn't they have rigged up some kind of rudimentary backpack? No doubt. But the stick was the whole point: like a walking stick in certain hands, the bindlestick, if it was ever used in real life, must have been a pretext to carry a weapon—to ward off angry dogs, fellow vagrants, hostile locals, and the like.”

This is an interesting bit of speculation, but Miller is clearly skeptical of the actual existence of bindlesticks outside of popular culture. After all, the longer the stick, the more weighty the burden and the greater the strain on arm and shoulder. Carrying a modest bundle dangling from one hand would seem to be more comfortable. It’s common to see street scavengers with large plastic bags slung over their backs, particularly when collecting recyclable cans; but I’ll bet you’ve never seen one dangling bindlestick style.

Search the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs catalog for “bindle stiff” and you’ll find 11 Dorothea Lange images of men carrying bundles but no sticks.

It’s difficult to say how far back the image goes, but Michael A. Chaney says in Fugitive Vision: Slave Image and Black Identity in Antebellum Narrative that silhouetted figures pictured on early 19th-century runaway slave posters often carried stereotypical bindlesticks.

Trying to research the term I discovered that most dictionaries simply do not recognize this word. It’s missing from the online Merriam-Webster, from Dictionary.com, from the Apple desktop dictionary, and from the Oxford English Dictionary. What they all offer instead is “bindlestiff,” which refers to the person carrying the bindlestick. Writers occasionally confuse the object with the person and miscall a hobo a “bindlestick”

Merriam-Webster’s search engine offers another odd alternative to “bindle stick”—“blanket stitch”!

Wikipedia has no article on “bindlestick” but its entry on “hobo” does explain the term in its common two-word spelling: “bindle stick.” Microsoft Word recognizes only the two-word version, as does the blog software I’m using to write this post.

I’ve always imagined the bindlestick to be the whole ensemble: the stick and the bundle. And clearly so do a lot of other people. Here are a few examples I found in Google Books:

“Other hobo slang includes . . . bindle stick – belongings wrapped in cloth and tied around a stick”
(USA by Rail: Plus Canada's Main Routes by John Pitt)

“Snowie packed her bindle stick as she was planning on running away. . .”
(World of Horrotica: Underworld Origins by David Edward Collier)

“Your lunch will come attractively packed in a ‘bindle stick’”
(Great Family Trips in New England by Harriet Webster)

But it seems clear that to most people the bindlestick (or bindle stick) is simply the stick from which the bindle dangles. That’s what Urban Dictionary says.

There is a coffeehouse offering live music not far from where I live called “Bindlestick,” and there is also a New Mexico art studio and a Texas microbrewery using the name.

Somebody on Kickstarter has raised over $6,000 to market a handsomely carved “bindle stick.”

A Google image search on the word will bring up any number of images, including a rather famous one by Norman Rockwell entitled “The Runaway.”

Whatever you think it means, “bindlestick” is clearly a word, despite all the oblivious dictionaries.


Anonymous said...

Not really on topic, but when my wife and I hiked the Grand Canyon, we encountered a hiker with a long stick across his shoulders and a backpack dangling from each end of the stick. Apparently he was relieving his child of the burden of carrying the child's backpack, and he had concluded that this would be the most comfortable way to carry both backpacks. We dubbed him Tupac.

Anonymous said...

Putting food and belongings up in a tree was essential; a right sturdy stick would help.