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Hobo Signs & Symbols

A hobo is a migrant worker or homeless vagrant, especially one who is impoverished.  The term originated in the Western -- probably North western -- United States around 1890 CE.  Unlike a "tramp", who works only when forced to, and a "bum", who does not work at all, a "hobo" is a travelling worker.

The origin of the term is unknown.  According to etymologist Anatoly Liberman (b. 10 March 1937), the only certain detail about its origin is the word was first noticed in American English circa 1890.  Liberman points out that many folk etymologies fail to answer the question: "Why did the word become widely known in California and only there) by the early Nineties?"  Author Todd DePastino notes that some have said that it derives from the term "hoe-boy", meaning "farmhand", or a greeting such as "Ho, boy", but that he does not find these to be convincing explanations.  Bill Bryson suggests in Made in America (1998) that it could either come from the railroad greeting, "Ho, beau!" or a syllabic abbreviation of "homeward bound".  It could also come from the words "homeless boy".  H. L. Mencken, in his The American Language (4th ed., 1937), wrote:

“Tramps and hobos are commonly lumped together, but see themselves as sharply differentiated.  A hobo or bo is simply a migrant labourer; he may take some longish holidays, but sooner or later he returns to work.  Lower than either is the bum, who neither works nor travels, save when impelled to motion by the police”.

To cope with the uncertainties of life, hobos developed a system of symbols -- they’d write with chalk or coal to provide fellow ‘Knights of the Road’ with directions, help, and warnings.

It is unclear exactly when hobos first appeared on the American railroading scene.  With the end of the American Civil War in the 1860s, many discharged veterans returning home began hopping freight trains.  Others looking for work on the American frontier followed the railways west aboard freight trains in the late 19th century.

Consequently, Hobos were the nomadic workers who roamed the United States (USA), taking jobs wherever they could, and never spending too long in any one place.  The Great Depression (1929 - 1939) was when numbers were most likely at their highest as it forced an estimated 4,000,000 adults to leave their homes in search of food and lodging.  Of those, 250,000 were said to be teenagers -- the economic collapse had destroyed everything in their young lives.  They criss-crossed the country, usually by freight train, jumping into boxcars as trains pulled away from their stops or slowed at bends in the track.

Finding food was a constant problem, and hobos often begged at farmhouses.  If the farmer was generous, the hobo would mark the lane so other hobos would know it was a good place to beg.

Markings would be made on fences, buildings, trees, pavements -- anywhere a message could signal help or trouble.  In the words of Susan Kare, who designed the original Macintosh icons, “This kind of symbol appeals to me because it had to be really simple, and clear to a group of people who were not going to be studying these for years in academia.”

The following pages feature and describe 60 of the most common symbols used by hobos.

Interpreting the Symbols

  1. A Kind lady lives here -- Hobos who found or left this mark could rely on a bite to eat with nothing expected in return.  This woman was generally welcoming, mother-like individuals who had great compassion for respectful hobos.
  2. A Man with a gun lives here -- This symbol warned hobos that knocking on the door or even stepping on the property would be met with a show of hostility and possibly force by the householder.  Those who came across it knew to move on, and quickly.
  3. The jail here has cooties -- Sometimes, hobos would allow themselves to be put in situations that would earn them jail time on purpose in the hope of escaping foul weather for a few days and scoring a free meal or two.  This symbol warned that the town’s jail was dirty or bug-ridden and not a good choice of lodging.
  4. It's okay to sleep in barn here -- There were many variations of this symbol, but if hobos discovered one, they would know that a nearby barn or hayloft was a good place to sleep or escape foul weather (either by sneaking in or asking permission).
  5. Beware there are thieves about, so keep your eyes on their hands -- Finding this sign at a hobo camp or meeting spot indicated that theft was suspected among the company there.  Those who saw it were warned to keep their belongings close by at all times, especially while sleeping.
  6. Clean water and a good place to camp –- With miles between some towns, it could take days to reach one's next destination.  Finding a safe, undisturbed place to camp that had good clean water and plenty of firewood nearby was difficult, so finding this symbol was a relief, especially after a long walk.
  7. Be prepared to defend yourself -- Coming across this symbol, a hobo would make sure that they stayed alert for aggressive behaviour among other hobos or in areas that frowned upon them.  Any sign of cowardice was an indicator that you were easily overcome and could be robbed or abused.
  8. Crooked man lives here -- Sometimes, a home or business owner would invite a hobo to work for food or cash but then run them off with no payment after the work was done.&mnsp; This symbol warned of this sort of situation but was also used to identify men who were abusive to children or deceptive in general.
  9. Tell a pitiful story -- Experienced hobos with some acting chops could easily manipulate potential marks by telling a hard-luck story or assuming a pitiful look.  This worked especially well for juvenile, teen, and female hobos.
  10. Police are hostile -- Often, police and town officials were outwardly physically aggressive toward any hobo regardless of their actions.  In some cases, this was purposefully done to secure an arrest and put a hobo to work for free.
  11. Get bread here -- Hobos became very good misers, and most learned to make much out of little.  Even less-fortunate of homes could sometimes spare a slice of stale bread or a leftover roll.  If a bread symbol could be found, there was a chance of a simple meal and a full belly.
  12. Doctor lives here -- Life on the road (and on the rails) was hard and brutal.  “Marking” the homes of doctors or even people with basic medical knowledge could mean the difference between life or death for a future passer-by.
  13. Get cursed out here -- Hobos were regarded in some towns as human trash, and certain folks took pleasure in verbally demeaning and insulting any hobo who happened by their way.  In areas like this, the law would take measures against any hobo who retaliated in any way.
  14. Wet town; alcohol here -- The symbol of an open mug meant that this town serves alcohol. This same symbol drawn without the top would indicate that this is a “dry” town.
  15. Go around this town -- If a hobo had an unpleasant experience in a town, they communicated it with this symbol.  Those who came across it were advised to take the long way around to avoid trouble.
  16. Go this way -- This was a common directional sign that indicated the right direction to go when faced with a crossroads or intersection.  By heading in the direction indicated by the line, other hobos could save time and avoid danger.
  17. Dogs in garden -- Dogs were often staked or left free to roam within the boundaries of garden plots to keep would-be robbers from plucking vegetables.  Hobos who experienced such an unpleasant surprise would warn others who might see the garden as an opportunity to "shop" for their evening’s meal.
  18. Judge lives here -- Disturbing the home of a judge or other agent of the law was a good way to get thrown in jail quickly.
  19. Kind gentleman lives here -- A top hat represented a kind or rich gentleman, and a triangle represented a home.  Together, they indicated that this was the house of a kind or rich gentleman or family.
  20. I went this way -- If two hobos agreed to meet up further down the road, whoever got to a landmark or structure first would leave an arrow symbol along with their moniker (road name) to let their pal know that they would be waiting in the next closest town.
  21. Jail is okay -- As a hobo, sooner or later, going to jail was inevitable.  There were occasions, however, when a hobo would actually “want” to be locked up for a night or two.  Sometimes, it was a survival tactic to get a meal or avoid approaching danger.  The trick was to find a jail that was clean and not dangerous and then get arrested.
  22. Table feed -- Feeds were far and few between, at least feeds that were specifically for hobos.  There were, however, functions that would tolerate hobos attending, such as church gatherings.  When an event like this was discovered, a hobo might let others know by using the table feed sign.
  23. Get out of town quick -- Only enter this town if you have to.  Get your business done and get out as quickly as possible.  This code warned of possible conflict and was a message to keep your head down, try not to be obvious, and keep to yourself as you pass through.
  24. Railroad men look the other way -- Rail workers and railroad police could be some of the cruellest and roughest of the people hobos would run into.  There were, however, sections of rail that rail police didn’t care about where they would ignore hobos or allow infractions in exchange for money or stolen valuables.
  25. Owner is out -- This symbol could apply to a home or a business where the owner was not present for long periods of time.  Turned in the opposite direction it meant that the owner or occupant more than likely was present.
  26. Bad water -- Don’t drink the water here; it will make you sick.  Waste disposal into streams and other bodies of water was often poorly regulated; this symbol gave warning to all that the water was likely not sanitary.
  27. Money for work here -- This is a good place to work for money.  Hobo jobs generally consisted of hard work with low pay, but there were opportunities that sometimes allowed a strong, steady hobo some longer-term security.  This symbol could also indicate the availability of migratory farm-work jobs.
  28. Chain gang -- In locations where the jail was connected to a chain-gang work scheme, a hobo who saw this symbol would move away as quickly as possible to avoid being roped into a position on an unpaid work crew.
  29. Easy marks -- This symbol boasted of the ease of gleaning money or food from a town or group of individuals.  The "marks” were often well-meaning people, so this symbol also indicated that the area was likely a comfortable place to be.
  30. I ate -- This was good news for a hobo entering an unfamiliar town.  This symbol encouraged hobos who followed by letting them know that their next meal may be close.
  31. Money here -- Working for food kept the belly full, but cold, hard cash was also needed for some of life’s necessities (including a “nip” from time to time).  This symbol provided a clue to the hot spots.  Work for money was always welcome when a hobo was trying to break free, even temporarily, from the transient lifestyle.
  32. Crime happened here -- Hobos were a superstitious bunch, so a code such as this was scrawled where a major crime was committed.  It warned that this area could be a dangerous place.
  33. Help if you are hurt -- Minor injuries or sickness could lead to major setbacks for hobos, so it was good to know where it was safe to seek help when it was needed.
  34. Cowards; will pay to get rid of you: Hobos had a tendency to cause fear in some households or towns that had little or no protection. Residents would gladly offer food or money rather than deal with confrontations with hobos.
  35. Nothing happening here -- This was a general statement that the approaching community had very little in the way or resources.  It was better to walk through and continue on in search of a better place.
  36. Good place to catch a train -- Hobos' travels quite frequently revolved around the rails.  This symbol provided information that was especially valuable to less-experienced hobos who needed to figure out where to safely “hop” a ride.
  37. Good place to sleep -- This sign guided the weary hobo to shelter that provided an element of protection or warmth.  Barns, bridges, and abandoned buildings were prime camping spots.
  38. Keep quiet, baby here -- One thing that most hobos agreed upon was that it was important to protect and respect young families.  This symbol would remind hobos of their code and instruct those who saw it to be quiet and not to disturb folks.
  39. Policeman lives here -- This sign saved many hobos from making the mistake of knocking on the door of a policeman or law officer and getting thrown in jail -- or worse -- a chain-gang work crew.
  40. (John) is waiting in town -- If two hobos agreed to meet up further down the road, the one who got there first would leave a message that showed their moniker (road name) and indicated that they would be waiting in the next closest town.
  41. Fake illness here -- Faking illness or injury could get a hobo a meal, a place to rest, or even money depending on how well they could act.  A hobo that feigned a nasty cough, for instance, might end up with some money to encourage them to leave the area.
  42. Hold your tongue -- In some towns, hobos would generally be ignored unless they brought notice to themselves by verbally responding to rude comments.  If you came across this sign, it let you know that you were better off not engaging in conversations.
  43. Stay quiet -- Move quietly and keep your head down.  Walk in the shadows as much as possible and do not disturb any livestock or animals that might announce your presence.  This symbol advised caution.
  44. Good road to follow -- When leaving the path of the rails, a symbol like this could save a hobo unnecessary and unproductive exploration by letting them know that a road or trail was a good choice and presented opportunity.
  45. Policewoman lives here -- Hobos found that the best “marks” were usually women.  There were times, however, that knocking on the door of a policewoman would end up backfiring.  It was important to stay away from homes around signs that indicated the presence of any law official.
  46. Bad -- Any time a single carved or drawn round dot was displayed with another symbol, it meant “no," "bad," "do not," etc.  In some cases, good symbols were “corrected” if the message had changed.
  47. Telephone here: -- As rare as they were, if an event occurred that required calling home or phoning someone about an opportunity, it was good to know where a telephone could be located.
  48. Dry town -- This symbol took the shape of an upside-down cup and let travellers know that this town did not sell or allow alcohol.  Don't try to buy it, and don't display it if you have it.
  49. Police will lock you up -- This sign told hobos to steer clear.  For no reason at all, police would arrest you and put you in jail to either keep favour with townspeople or to add you to their own private free-labour workforce.
  50. Church or religious people -- This symbol could be both good and bad.  Food or shelter offered by a compassionate group of religious people would be a welcome find even if it meant being subjected to a harsh sermon.  On the other hand, some strict and pious congregations viewed hobos as products of sin and didn't treat them as kindly.
  51. Dangerous man lives here -- Hobos avoided conflict as much as possible.  This symbol served as a warning to avoid a home known for criminal or violent behaviour.  Police would not typically assist a hobo in the event of a confrontation.
  52. Authorities are alert -- Police and political figures in some towns tried to keep their areas hobo-free and were constantly on the lookout.  A hobo who was fortunate enough to spot this symbol could save themself a lot of trouble.
  53. Poor people live here -- This symbol earned a town a level of respect from hobos.  They more than anyone else understood the hardships of life and would not bother people they knew to be struggling.
  54. Dangerous place -- This sign was a severe warning to stay away at all costs.  To proceed further would be to risk bodily harm or worse, so move on quickly.
  55. Workhouse jail -- This sign warned visitors to do their business and leave as quickly as possible.  If your timing was bad, you could easily be locked up only to find yourself working long, hard hours digging ditches with no pay and no release date.  Get snagged in one of these situations, and you'd better plan your escape from the beginning.
  56. Home heavily guarded -- Be prepared to be met with aggressive behaviour, a guard dog, or even a gun.  This symbol indicated that occupants were usually home and would take great measures to protect themselves.
  57. People do not give -- Even your best approach won’t work here.  Expect a rude response and a strict warning to keep away.  This sign meant that even a glass of water on a hot day was out of the question.
  58. Stay off of main street -- Don’t be seen; stick to the side streets and alleys.  This mark meant move on quickly or avoid this town altogether.
  59. Mean dogs here -- This warning was a sign that the dogs on this property were trained specifically to keep unwelcome or unknown people away.  Both their bark and bite were good reasons to take the long way around.
  60. Great place for a handout -- Homeowners who were perplexed by the increased numbers of hobos knocking on their back door were sure to find a symbol like this close to their property.  Hobos would share their wealth by letting others know that a person or home was a great place to get a meal or money.

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