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:

  • A cross — “angel food” (food served to hobos after a sermon).
  • A triangle with hands — the homeowner has a gun.
  • A horizontal zigzag — a barking dog.
  • A square missing its top line — safe to camp in that spot.
  • A top hat and a triangle — wealth.
  • A spearhead — a warning to defend yourself.
  • A circle with two parallel arrows — get out fast, hobos aren’t welcome.
  • Two interlocked circles — handcuffs (i.e., hobos are jailed).
  • A caduceus symbol — doctor living in the house.
  • A cross with a smiley face in one of the corners — the doctor will treat hobos free of charge.
  • A cat — a kind lady lives here.
  • A wavy line (signifying water) above an X — fresh water and a campsite.
  • Three diagonal lines — not a safe place.
  • A square with a slanted roof (signifying a house) with an X through it — the house has already been “burned” or “tricked” by another hobo.
  • Two shovels — work available (shovels, because most hobos performed manual labour).

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).

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.

Hobos are not the same as homeless people of today. Hobos WOULD work; they just traveled around to do so. They were more like nomads. Today, homeless people tend to want everything handed to them and are lazy and ungrateful.

Yes, yes, of course, that makes perfect sense. In the ‘old days’ EVERYTHING was better. Men were dominant, women were subservient, minorities and gays stayed quiet or got beaten and killed, and in general everything just had a rosy glow about it.

Gee, even old time homeless people were superior. Not like these awful MODERN homeless who never have jobs (except for the thousands that do, but still can’t afford housing. But, y’know f*ck them because they don’t fit the narrative).

Thanks for blessing us all with your profound historical insight.

“Men were dominant, women were subservient, minorities and gays stayed quiet or got beaten and killed, and in general everything just had a rosy glow about it.”

Too bad those good old days are gone.

Handy way to let yourself off the hook for not giving a damn about people in the many varied circumstances you don’t take the time to understand.

Does every conversation have to end up being someone talking shit to someone else? Speaking of things people can’t stand. Looking in the mirror and trying to pick a fight? Jesus guys, we were discussing symbols.

Hilarious how triggered these righteous fools are. This is called an opinion. You can handle them, respondents, even the ones that are different from yours. If you disagree, simply ignore. No chastisement needed.

It is interesting that people think that the homeless were not around back then, either. The reason the word hobo came into being was/is to distinguish between those who demanded to work (typically seasonal labor), and those that simply asked for everything (including money); it was simply asking for food that was the common denominator between both groups.

I enjoy the suggestion that hobos do not have any similar issues, clearly they did. But the asking for money was what the distinction needs, as it is meaningful towards their character. But please, keep on thinking that everything is relative to your modern understanding (most insane people were locked away in asylums and neither homeless nor hobos).

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.

Much of today’s homeless where I live are meth users or are mentally ill. Being homeless in the depression era was far different than the life the majority of the transients are living today. Intelligence and ability to reason and survive can be greatly affected by substance use as well as ones age and background or stresses they might be under.

There are a lot assumptions made about the homeless. Last year’s homeless survey here in L.A. indicates that together the mentally ill and substance abusers account for only 20% of those living outside. The reason we have the misconception that all homeless have these issues is because they are the most conspicuous.

I’d like to know more about this survey. Was it asking the homeless? Was the survey expecting the mentally ill to self-identify as such?

Again… hobos were NOT the same as merely homeless. Hobos were workers. Homeless people of today are lazy beggars for the most part.

A lot of homeless people actually can’t work. If they have a health condition which prevents them from working, for instance. Do you really think people would choose to be homeless?

I remember one doctor accused of killing his wife, he jumped on a train and traveled the country, and it turns out a one armed man actually killed his wife.

Clever! Believe you’re referencing The Fugitive, 1963 TV series (David Janssen, William Conrad) or 1993 movie with same title (Harrison Ford, Tommy Lee Jones). Both were excellent.

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.?

Here’s a modern equivalent – I take time during and after my run to let other trail users know about problem places. I log the places where the footpaths are bad, gates are locked and similar inconveniences on run tracking apps, and hiking community sites. When I’m out in the field too, I clear paths that are overgrown, and clean off trail signs that have become hidden under dirt.

Exactly Hunter. We’re working on sharing our thoughts on hobo signs, but academics like Nels Anderson rode the rails in the early 1900s for years and refuted the actuality of any signs. There are many different sets of signs, which often disagree with one another on meanings, even of the most simple of signs. Also, most sets contain too many signs and signs that make no sense. “Friendly campsite” or “Friendly Jungle” makes no sense at all. This would be entirely dependent on who was in the jungle at the time and that could literally change day by day.

In over 50 hobo autobiographies I’ve read I have never once read a first hand account of a hobo consulting signs. Any mention of them is either the same old printout of them in the back of the book as a piece of interesting kitsch, or from the perspective of a homeowner saying something vague like, “There must have been a sign since we had so many hoboes coming to our door.” Well with over 12 million people unemployed in the height of the Great Depression it’s easy to believe that over 2 million were out riding the rails, so of course if you lived near the tracks in a decent sized town you would have been seeing hoboes all the time. What you do read about in almost every hobo autobiography is word of mouth traveling up and down the rails; which towns are good, which are hostile and should be avoided.

Eventually our writeup will be shared at http://www.historicgraffiti.org

I can’t speak for all the signs, and I agree that some seem a little improbable or impractical, but I know the simple X is true. When my dad was a kid in the 1930s, he said a hobo begged his mom for food. She gave him something to eat, and let him sit on the steps while he ate. After the hobo left, a neighbor walked over and told her the hobo had marked her house with a chalk X to let other tramps know they can get food there, and my dad said sure enough, it was on the side of their steps. Frankly I think that’s a crummy way to repay a kindness.

Reading this story made me think that perhaps the traveller marked the x in order to remind himself that he had already asked and been given food there so as not to ask at the same place again – it was probably difficult to share what little anyone had at the time so this could have been a thoughtful gesture so as not to put too much burden on the kindly household. Just a thought.

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!

I was told by my Dad that my grandfather, whom I’d never met, was a hobo. He played the harmonica and taught it to my Dad. My Dad could make it sound like a train going down a track. Sounded great. The rhythmic sound of wheels followed by the moan of the horn. I wish I’d made a recording of it. Grandfather came from Saginaw, Michigan, and rode the rails down to the Southwest. He did settle there and remained a lumberjack until he died – in his sleep. From all reports, he was a kind man. He raised my Dad, and built a smalll home down a ways from his for his wife. They didn’t get along, seemingly due to her nature, not his. He also played the violin by ear and was remembered by my Dad as being kind to animals. I wish I’d known him!

I just met a kind young man, 33 years of age… and he is a true track-walking, train-riding, railroad hobo. Behind my house are railroad tracks that he had been walking. He came up the side street, walked past my house (said he didn’t need any water when I offered) and asked me how far the next town was.

He kept right on walking. I went inside and gathered up some money, got in my car and went to look for him. He was several blocks away at the local ice cream Dari. When I asked him if he was going to walk the old route or take the highway… he smiled, and said he was taking the tracks. That’s when he told me that he was a hobo. What a joy it was to talk to him. He said that he carries a pastel with him and will write his “handle” and a brief message with the date at different stops that he makes.

My mom, who is 87, said that her mom would always feed the hobos (in the 1930’s) whenever they stopped.

My dad would recount stories of hobos stopping by his childhood home in Mississippi during the depression. My grandfather was a locomotive engineer. He and grandmother would feed hobos passing through that would come to the back door. Dad remembers walking out into the backyard and seeing his dad sitting at the picnic table feeding an armless man. The hobo had lost his forearms when he tripped while trying to catch a train. He admitted to grandpa that their home had been marked as a friendly place to stop.

My grandparents lived in the hills of Vermont. My mother told me there were fence posts or trees that were marked by “hobos or tramps” to tell others that my grandparents would feed them and might let them sleep in the hay barn. Mom’s family was very large and struggled. Sometimes they had potatoes with hot lard poured over them. If that’s what the family was having, that’s what the tramps ate as well.

My grandmother kept a huge cauldron of soup going all day. The hobos would often come to her back kitchen door and a bowl of soup would be handed to them with a slice of bread slathered with butter.

The hobos were generally young illiterate men who were looking for farm work or seasonal factory work. They somehow knew to make their way to her house. She was not the only lady in her neighborhood serving them. They knew who the feeders were by the sign language and would spread out so as to not burden any one person who was feeding them.

Times were desperate during the depression and many women stepped up to provide these men with food. They were looking for work and just trying to survive. During that time the country was still more agricultural than metropolitan which is why they rode the rails to get work on the farms and packing houses. A different time then.

My uncle was a hobo who rode the rails out of New Mexico to Sacramento CA. The last time I saw him was 1962. He came to visit us in Tulare County, CA where we were living at the time. He went out to the fields around the house and came back with some rabbits. Mom cooked them and served them with beans, rice, tortillas and salsa. When Juan Corona was killing transients on the Feather river my dad thought it might be his brother but as it turned out dad died in San Jose, CA in 1991 and my uncle died in Sacramento in 1995.

I had to cross some railroad tracks on my way to junior high school in the early 60s. There was a sort of hobo encampment there among some trees. One day I met a hobo and spent a couple of hours talking about the life he led. It made such a lasting impression on me that after high school I took off and hitchhiked around the country.

Part of that journey was riding the rails a couple times. The first time was from Roseville CA over the Sierras along the north fork of the American River I think. Riding in a gondola car open to the sky on a full moon night was one of the most scenic and memorable times of my life. Same journey blasting across the Great Salt lake at high speed and seeing derailed cars alongside the tracks was sobering. Got kicked off the train in Morgan Utah by the yard cops. Went from there hitchhiking across Canada and ended up at Woodstock. What a summer!

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