Hobos were the nomadic workers who roamed the United States, taking jobs wherever they could, and never spending too long in any one place. The Great Depression (1929–1939) was when numbers were 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.

Hobo signs and symbols
Hobo signs displayed at the National Cryptologic Museum, Annapolis Junction.

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.”

Hobo signs and symbols
Hobo signs, from Symbol Sourcebook, by Henry Dreyfuss, via bLog-oMotives.

Translations for some commonly used signs:

The symbols in the photos below were drawn onto a small model of an early-1930s American town.

Hobo signs symbols
Clockwise from top-left: kind lady, judge lives here, good place to catch the train, camp here.
Hobo signs and symbols
Clockwise from top-left: vicious dog, nothing to be gained, water and safe campsite, owners will give to get rid of you.

The number of travelling workers fell dramatically by the 1950s, as Jack Kerouac, no stranger to the hobo life, noted in Lonesome Traveler (1960):

“The American Hobo has a hard time hoboing nowadays due to the increase in police surveillance of highways, railroad yards, sea shores, river bottoms, embankments and the thousand-and-one hiding holes of the industrial night.”

One of the most well-known hobo songs is Big Rock Candy Mountain, first recorded by Harry McClintock in 1928, about a hobo’s idea of paradise. It was used in the opening credits of O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Details via livinghistoryfarm.org, SSoIH, angelfire.com, dangerousminds.net, and weburbanist.com, horailroad.com, Wikipedia, Riding the Rails (on YouTube).

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June 11, 2018

Comments

As a retired railroad worker, we had hobos 45 years ago and would see some of the same people every year… coming north in spring and going south in autumn. Chicago was a major hub, as was Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Green Bay, South Pekin, St. Louis. Never had a problem with any of them, and a little water and a few dollars would get you stories till they crawled into a boxcar and went on their way.

This is great. In a world where people can’t even bear to look at someone who is homeless, this highlights the knowledge and thought that they put into communication in their lives. Sometimes all you have to do is stop and look.

I’m trying to find the meaning of a particular symbol. It’s a triangle inside a circle. The circle touches all three points of the triangle. Additionally, inside the triangle is a cross, the top of which meets where the top of the triangle and circle meet. The center horizontal piece on the cross stretches across the interior of the triangle. Any ideas?

They would come up from the rail stop from this dense pine forest and come to the back door of my mama’s house. She would feed them and they would be on their way. Mama would give them some beans and corn bread or something. There must have been writing and signs by the railroad stop.

My dad told me about hobo signs. After his mother died when he was 8 or 9, he and my aunt were abandoned by their father, and so my dad rode boxcars throughout Pennsylvania where he encountered and heeded them everywhere he roamed. This was in the late 30’s. Such a different ‘childhood’.

Thanks for the post, it brought back some great memories with my pop.

Symbols aside, it’s amazing how despite their situation, people are thoughtful enough to leave messages for others in the same plight. Isn’t this act a symbol of a remarkable intelligence itself? Any more reference materials on this?

A person becomes homeless and all of a sudden they lack intelligence? How condescending.

The homeless have wits and smarts and take it that every day of their life up til then had been basic training for the rest of their days. They utilize every available resource to survive in a world from which they’ve been cast away… most, I’m confident, are more intelligent, enlightened, and wise than you’ll ever hope to be.

I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for hobos. My favorite clown was Hobo Kelly. Was fortunate to have made my childhood dream come true, and be a clown with Ringling. I love cigars. How they represent the uppercrust, finer things, and Wall Street. Also how they represent the hobo. A half smoked cigar is a true gift for the man down on his luck.

Why, if ¨hobos¨ were trying to survive, why would they mark those symbols? How would they have time to mark them if there was a dog or a person chasing them? How do we know it was actually ¨hobos¨ if we weren’t there.?

My Grandmother, Manda, lived near the railroad. She never turned down anyone who came to her door asking for food. I have heard the stories of the x on a telephone pole next to her house, as she always fed the Hobos, but it was such a wonderful surprise to come across this article, that validates our families story. I have always been so proud of my Grandmother’s dedication to feed others. She did it in so many ways.

My Grandmother lived on a ranch in Burbank CA in the ‘40s, next to the Glen-Bank wrecking yard. The Railroad through the Valley was across a big field in the back, hobos used to come walking across the field to our house and when she saw them coming, she got a bag of food and a jar of water ready to give them. My Grandpa didn’t care much for her doing that though, lol!

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