In July 1891, a slender, bookish Prince­ton graduate packed a small knapsack, put on a suit of old work clothes, and walked into a new existence as a member of the working class. The young scholar, Walter Augustus Wyckoff, Class of 1888, would spend a year and a half traveling from Connecticut to Cali­fornia, taking every job he could find, from digging ditches in Middletown, N.Y., to building roads on the grounds of the Chicago World’s Fair. He traveled mostly on foot and lived only on the wages he earned, occasionally struggling to earn enough change for his next meal.  

This “experiment in reality,” as Wyckoff described it, would shape his view of the industrialized world and launch his career as an accomplished author and Princeton professor. His meticulous notes helped to start an enduring genre of social exploration that transformed the popular understanding of working conditions and class barriers in the United States.  

The journey began at the country estate of Wall Street financier J. Pierpont Morgan, where Wyckoff was a guest of Morgan’s nephew Junius, a close friend and Princeton classmate. One evening, while the elder Morgan and his guests were discussing the relationship of capital and labor, Wyckoff found himself defending the viewpoint of workers. His argument was dismissed as naïveté. But a fellow guest, a Colorado mining executive, encouraged Wyckoff to learn the true nature of the working class. His suggested method: Become one of the workers. Wyckoff, an adventurous and well-traveled son of missionaries, took up the challenge.  

Wyckoff had read a few socialist texts, but his academic training, which included a postgraduate year at the Princeton Seminary, did little to prepare him for his unusual expedition. At the beginning of his trek, Wyckoff had the jittery excitement of an explorer setting off for some exotic distant land, and he proudly detailed his transformation from scholar to worker. Serving on a demolition crew in West Point, N.Y., his soft hands bled on the jagged edges of debris, “but the dust acted as a styptic,” Wyckoff recalled, “and helped vastly in the hardening process.”

It was a long way from Princeton, where Wyckoff had sipped tea with President James McCosh and delivered an oration to dedicate the Class of 1888 ivy at Nassau Hall. As a student, Wyckoff stood out. As a worker, he was nearly invisible. Masked by stained clothes and a full beard, he passed classmates and old friends on the street. Not one gave more than a passing glance.

His timing was fortuitous. The Panic of 1893 would drop the United States into a deep economic depression, eliminating jobs and driving labor organizations to rebel. Activist Jacob Coxey led an “army” of the unemployed in a march on Washington, D.C., and union leader Eugene V. Debs orchestrated a strike against the Pullman Company that eventually was quelled by federal troops. If Wyckoff had embarked on his experiment earlier, his work might have fallen on deaf ears. And had he started his travels in 1894, employers might have viewed him suspiciously, as a possible unionist or socialist.

Still, blending in must have been a challenge. Wyckoff spoke with an English accent — a vestige of his years in the British colonial schools of northern India, where he was born and partly raised — and he abhorred the profanity that seemed ingrained in the daily language of laborers. While co-workers spent their wages on “hard revels,” Wyckoff abstained from alcohol and attended church every Sunday. His self-confessed “vice” was a sort of scholarly idleness: On two occasions recounted in his books, The Workers, an Experiment in Reality: The East (1897) and The Workers, an Experiment in Reality: The West (1898), Wyckoff wandered into a public library and got lost in his reading, wasting hours that he could have used to search for work.

Wyckoff was an accomplished runner in college — his 4:55 in the mile was the best time on the Princeton team in 1887 — but he lacked the muscular build of a seasoned logger or teamster. Years later, when Wyckoff gained popularity as an author and lecturer, critics questioned how the genteel, slightly built professor ever had passed as an unskilled worker. He insisted that it was not difficult. In workman’s clothes, he wrote, he’d “been mistaken for a drunkard, and a detective, and a disreputable double of myself ... but not once, so far as I know, have I been taken for a gentleman.”

At the start of Wyckoff’s journey, finding work was relatively simple — even if workers had to endure hardships and injuries to earn modest wages in those jobs. Wyckoff asked crew bosses, innkeepers, and farmers if they needed a hand. Enough did. In the towns, Wyckoff found suitable rooms and decent food in boarding houses. In more isolated locales like logging camps, the employer provided meals and beds.  

But when Wyckoff reached Chicago in early December 1891, a period covered at the start of his second volume, the worker’s life was reduced to a stark, hand-to-mouth existence. Abundant factories, legendary stockyards, and a promise of construction jobs at the grounds of the upcoming World’s Fair had drawn thousands of men to the city. But the supply of labor quickly outstripped demand, and on cold winter nights, Wyckoff slept among the scores of homeless, unemployed men who sought refuge in the basement of a police station — a “prostrate coiling mass of reeking humanity.”  

The most powerful passages in The Workers described the hardships of this time. At one point, for example, Wyckoff explains how a winter of unemployment and malnourishment made a man unfit for work when jobs became available in the spring:

The boss had all but agreed to take him on for some sort of unskilled labor, when, struck evidently by the cadaverous look of the man, he told him to bare his arm. Up went the sleeve of his coat and of his ragged flannel-shirt, exposing a naked arm with the muscles nearly gone, and the blue-white, transparent skin stretched over sinews and the outlines of the bones. Pitiful beyond words was his effort to give a semblance of strength to the biceps which rose faintly to the upward movement of the forearm. But the boss sent him off with an oath and a contemptuous laugh, and I watched the fellow as he turned down the street, facing the fact of his starving family with a despair at his heart which only mortal men can feel and no mortal tongue can speak.

For much of the winter, Wyckoff waited outside of ­factories at dawn and searched for odd jobs the rest of the day. Being turned away at the gates seemed to wear on him. One morning, when a factory porter pushed and kicked an aggressive job seeker, Wyckoff retaliated. “In an instant, I had lost all sense of cold and weariness and hunger,” he wrote, “and I was strong and warm in the wild joy of the lust for blood.” Wyckoff grabbed the porter’s neck and punched him in the face. The porter struck back with a decisive blow, leaving Wyckoff on the ground, “choking on gulps of blood which flowed from a cut against my teeth.”  

Wyckoff eventually found work at a different factory, and though he met several admirable individuals, his primary observation of his colleagues was that they lacked motivation. They did what was expected of them and nothing more. The same was true two months later when Wyckoff became a road-builder at the World’s Fair. The attitude puzzled him. Instead of settling for mediocrity, workers should be trying to stand out, he wrote, in hopes of “winning some preferment through effective, energetic work.”

In Chicago, Wyckoff also spent a series of Sunday afternoons at Socialist Party meetings. Though he did not subscribe to socialism, he took a sympathetic view, noting that most of the people he met had constructive views for reform along with “a living belief in the solidarity of the human race and in the responsibilities which grow out of the bond of universal kinship.” There were, he wrote, a few anarchists among the socialists, “but even among the anarchists the upholders of a policy of bloody revolt against social order were rare.”

When Wyckoff left Chicago and returned to rural highways, he confronted a new and strange reality: Everyone he met seemed to offer him a job. Farmhands were in high demand in the Midwest during the summer months, and many of the best young workers had left for the cities.

On the farms of Illinois, Minnesota, and Iowa, Wyckoff discovered a pace of life that suited him. Long working hours were broken up by meals in the farmhouse, swimming in a nearby river, and evening hymn sings with the farmer’s family. Faithful to his plan of reaching California, Wyckoff left the Midwest before the harvest was complete, but he seemed to regret that decision.

The long Western stretch of Wyckoff’s journey yielded few new findings regarding the labor market. In the mines at Cripple Creek, Colo., there were no jobs for a tenderfoot like Wyckoff, but he did find work clearing the way for new roads, earning the princely sum of $2.50 a day, his highest wage on the trip.  

When Wyckoff finally reached San Francisco early in 1893, he admitted there were times on his journey when he had yearned for “a return to normal living.” (He did, in fact, make two detours to his former life: one to attend his brother’s wedding, and the other to visit the 1892 Republican National Convention in Minneapolis.) In the end, though, he seemed unsure of what he had accomplished. In his writing, he drew few conclusions, saying only that he valued the experience and the knowledge that he gained: “I had discovered much that was new to me, but nothing that was new to science, and the experience of a single individual could never furnish data for a valid generalization.”

Walter Wyckoff 1888, far left, joined Princeton biologists and geoscientists on an 1899 field study in Greenland. The group also delivered supplies to Adm. Robert Peary.
Walter Wyckoff 1888, far left, joined Princeton biologists and geoscientists on an 1899 field study in Greenland. The group also delivered supplies to Adm. Robert Peary.
Princeton University Archives

Wyckoff returned to Princeton in 1895 to become a lecturer in sociology. He began publishing The Workers two years later as a serial in Scribner’s Magazine. The stories focused on his travels, with a few interspersed theories about problems in the workforce. Chief among them was the idea that unemployment largely was a problem of distribution: Cities had too many workers and not enough jobs, while rural and frontier areas needed more workers — a conclusion based primarily on Wyckoff’s admittedly unscientific experience.

He criticized capital and labor at different points in the books, with each instance following a similar theme: Capitalists showed little care for or loyalty to unskilled workers; workers often showed a lack of motivation, perhaps as a response to how they were treated. But the author still backed the fundamentals of American capitalism with a faith that seemed tied to both patriotism and religion. “It is contact with the people which breeds in one the strongest patriotic feeling,” he wrote. In America, “one sees a people intelligent, resourceful, and hugely vital” pursuing “a glorious mission of high ­destiny.”  

Readers and reviewers responded favorably to the magazine articles and books. The accounts were detailed and exciting, but not overly sensational. The workers Wyckoff portrayed were approachable, if not always admirable, and the author’s empathy made it clear that his criticism was meant to be constructive. Members of Congress invited him to testify as an expert on labor issues, and he became a popular lecturer throughout the country.  

At Princeton, the success of his books helped Wyckoff earn a promotion to assistant professor of political economy in 1898. He enjoyed immense popularity in social circles, with his uncommon combination of charm, manners, and an intimate knowledge of how the other half lived. The New York Tribune quipped that only Grover Cleveland, who had retired to Princeton after his presidency, topped Wyckoff on the town’s list of sought-after dinner guests. Students also held him in high regard, partly because of his unorthodox path, but they could not resist attaching a nickname to the well-traveled professor. They called him “Weary Wyckoff,” after Weary Waggles, a hobo character from the newspaper comics.  

Wyckoff had critics, particularly among labor leaders. Samuel Gompers, the president of the American Federation of Labor, argued that Wyckoff never could understand the lot of the worker. “If the worst came to the worst, [Wyckoff] could retire from the struggle and enjoy the advantages which his position in life could give him,” Gompers wrote in a letter to the editors at Scribner’s. The ordinary wage-earner, he said, “is forever bound up with his condition.”  

Two years after Wyckoff completed The Workers, he published a third volume culled from his cross-country trek, A Day With a Tramp, and Other Days. The brief and scattered collection of experiences seemed to exhaust the material from Wyckoff’s defining adventure, but the professor continued to travel and write. He accompanied several Princeton biologists on an 1899 scientific excursion to northern Greenland, where the group delivered supplies to North Pole explorer Adm. Robert Peary. In the early 1900s, Wyckoff spent time in London and Paris, documenting the lives of workers in both cities. In each case, he chose not to immerse himself in unskilled labor and based his findings on interviews.

In 1903, at age 38, Wyckoff married a woman from Colorado, Leah Ehrich, and a year after that, the couple had a daughter. It seemed as if “Weary Wyckoff” finally was leaving life on the road. He began to take a deeper interest in campus issues, including President Woodrow Wilson 1879’s quad plan (his letters suggest that he supported it), and he continued to teach, making a lasting impression on many undergraduates like Norman Thomas 1905, the future Socialist leader, who later would joke that the professor “did a pretty good if by no means lasting job” of explaining to him why socialism could never work. But Wyckoff’s time as a professor in residence would be short-lived. In 1908, he suffered an aneurysm of the aorta and died soon afterward. He was 43.

Fifteen years after his death, colleagues and classmates raised funds for a Wyckoff memorial, a bronze tablet mounted inside an archway of East Pyne. The carefully chosen words speak well of the late professor — “A Christian scholar, a lover of mankind, an adventurous traveler who wrote out of his own experience ... ” — but the words spoken at the memorial’s dedication give a more personal portrait. Longtime friend and English professor Henry van Dyke 1873 described Wyckoff as a man who was “afraid of nothing,” who was “so gentle and courteous that his manner almost concealed the spirit of courage and high adventure in his breast.”

That view of Wyckoff endured. Frank Kemp ’62, one of Wyckoff’s grandnephews, said that one frequently told story came from Wyckoff’s winter in Chicago. Penniless and waiting in a bread line, he noticed that a well-dressed classmate was walking down the street. Wyckoff could have dropped his façade, flagged down his friend, and enjoyed a warm meal. But he resisted that temptation. “He was true to his investigations,” Kemp says.

Another grandnephew, the Rev. Jack Kemp, says Wyckoff was remembered as a generous brother who took great interest in the education of his younger siblings. Walter was the first to attend Princeton. His younger brother, J. Edward Wyckoff 1889, followed, and at least a half-dozen other relatives attended Princeton in subsequent generations.  

Wyckoff’s research and written work enjoys a small but significant legacy. Historians occasionally cite The Workers for anecdotes of life in the 1890s, and the books are considered a pioneering example in a broad group of class exploration in America. Jonathan Prude, a history professor at Emory University who studies authors who dressed down to mingle among “the masses,” says that Wyckoff triggered others to pursue similar social inquiries in sweatshops, steel mills, and other workplaces. The Jungle, Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novelized exposé of the meatpacking industry, is the most enduring example. “[Wyckoff] is in the vanguard of a really interesting genre of writing about America,” Prude says. “He launches, maybe unconsciously, a kind of down-and-out writing that for 40-odd years was very important.”  

Princeton sociology professor Katherine Newman says that Wyckoff could identify kindred spirits throughout the history of her field, including the late Harvard professor David Riesman, the pre-eminent sociologist of the 20th century, who made a brief trip to Detroit during the Great Depression to explore the experiences of an unemployed factory worker.  

Some sociologists who study labor issues still immerse themselves among low-wage workers. (For Newman’s 1999 book, No Shame in My Game: The Working Poor in the Inner City, the professor and her research assistants interviewed more than 300 fast-food workers and managers, shadowing several of them in their daily lives.) Today, projects have predetermined ethical guidelines on issues like disclosure and obtaining consent from fellow workers, and modern social scientists have more systematic techniques for testing theories and constructing causal arguments. But Wyckoff’s spirit of inquiry and social justice aligns well with today’s Princeton sociology faculty, according to Newman. The department, she says, “is particularly known as one that thinks of sociology as a public commitment.”

For Wyckoff, the “public commitment” of his work evolved from what began as a personal journey. He had no faculty post, no hypothesis, and only the most basic of research guidelines (“I wished my mind to be tabula rasa to new facts, and sensitive to the impressions of actual experience”).  

Nineteen months as an unskilled laborer would shape the next 15 years of Wyckoff’s working life, including his emergence as one of Princeton’s first social scientists. And though his journey produced more than 800 published pages, his most fitting epitaph may come from a speech that he delivered three years before his departure, when he addressed classmates on the eve of their Commencement:  

“When on the great highway of life, burdened by its heat and wearied by its ceaseless rush, we sometimes see our ideal fading from us, in the dust and hurry of the way, looking back ... we shall find new courage in the consciousness that we are not alone, but each is sharer in the hopes and struggles of us all.”