The Great Depression of early 20th century America saw a large increase in the ‘hobo’ population – a social stratum of mobile casual workers and itinerant rough sleepers. Travelling on foot or by jumping trains, the hobo’s nomadic life was one of adventure and need, looking for a better, or just different, way of life.
This area of traveller culture is covered excellently elsewhere – recommended starters are the books ‘Sister of the Road: The Autobiography of Boxcar Bertha’ (a fictionalised conflation of hobo characters written by one of their own, Dr. Ben Reitman), and ‘You Can’t Win’ (Jack Black’s memoir of a life of hobo crime – and one of William Burroughs’ favourites). Here we will examine one of hobo culture’s most fascinating expressions – the ‘Hobo Code’.
The Hobo Code
A richly useful system of communication, the Code was a lexicon of symbols and markings that hobos could leave to inform peers subsequently arriving in a location, used variously to mark useful or important places, warnings, and the like. The symbols were typically left on utility poles, as well as on railway trestles, large rocks, and buildings, and drawn using chalk, charcoal or other non-permanent writing material. As hobos could be viewed with great suspicion – or even outright hostility – many of the symbols were cryptic, so settled folk would be less likely to decipher their meaning.
The origins of the code, and of the term ‘hobo’, are uncertain, but its purpose is clear – survival and solidarity. With this rich variety of communicative possibility, hobos could warn or help their peers, with glyphs representing messages such as where to get free food or casual work, local dangers, and other useful information. When the arrival of cars brought more roads too, hobos reacted by creating a comprehensive system for charting the best routes for fellow hobos.
Over time, the meaning of many of the Code’s symbols have been lost, yet many are still used by the Hobo’s modern-day counterparts, who have continued to develop the language, both to allow for new inventions (as it did with the arrival of roads) and to keep up when non-hobos started to draw the symbols for their own amusement. The Code has been used across all the USA, and has a vague “regional dialect”, that is, the symbols can have varying meanings in different places, or multiple symbols may exist with the same or similar meaning.
Some known Hobo Code symbols:
A caduceus – A doctor lives here.
A cat – A kind woman lives here.
A circle with two parallel arrows- Leave here fast, hobos are not welcome here.
A cross – ‘Angel food’ available here – that is free food served after a church sermon.
A cross with a smiley face in one of the corners – This doctor will treat hobos free.
A horizontal zigzag – A barking dog lives here.
A spearhead – Be prepared to defend oneself from locals.
A square missing its top line – It’s safe to camp here.
A square with a slanted roof with an X through it – This house does not trust hobos, having previously been “burned” or “tricked” by another.
A top hat and a triangle – There are wealthy people here.
A train – This is a good place to catch a train.
A triangle with hands – This homeowner has a gun.
A wavy line above an X – There is access to fresh water and a place to camp here.
Three diagonal lines – This is not a safe place.
Two interlocked circles – Symbolising handcuffs, to signal that police are active here.
Two shovels – Manual work is available here.
Other messages represented in the Hobo Code:
“Beware of hostile railroad police”
“Don’t go that way”
“Easy mark, sucker”
“Fake illness here”
“Food available here”
“Get out fast”
“Go this way”
“Good lady lives here, tell a hard luck story”
“Police officer lives here, not kind to tramps”
“Religious talk gets a free meal”
“Road spoiled, full of other hobos”
“Turn right here”
“You may sleep in barn”