Hobos signs and symbols were a unique means of communication that helped steer hobos in the right direction—towards work and away from trouble

The life of the American hobo was an unpredictable and dangerous one. Many hobos desired to protect their community from cruelty and steer them in the direction of goodwill. How did they communicate? Through a unique series of graphics known as “hobo symbols.” Who were the original American hobos? What was the purpose of their signs/symbols? And what were some of the popular symbols used?

Who were the original American hobos?

While hobos are still ill-defined by many historians, one definition has remained consistent: they were migratory workers who searched for temporary jobs across the country, with most train-hopping to new locations. The origin of hobos dates back to the start of the railroad, yet became relatively significant after the conclusion of the American Civil War (1860) when soldiers who had returned from battle began traveling in search of post-war work.

Between 1906 and 1911, the hobo population surged from 500,000 to 700,000. Hobos became even more notable in the 1920s and early 1930s. The 1920s saw writers like Walt Whitman romanticizing the migratory life of hobos, a phenomenon called “Hobohemia” by sociologist Nels Anderson. Famous hobo and writer Jack London wrote:

Perhaps the greatest charm of tramp-life is the absence of monotony. In Hobo Land the face of life is protean—an ever changing phantasmagoria, where the impossible happens and the unexpected jumps out of the bushes at every turn of the road. The hobo never knows what is going to happen the next moment; hence, he lives only in the present moment.

However, hobo life lost its charm after the Great Depression threw the lives of working people into turmoil. Countless individuals lost their homes, their jobs, and their savings. Many people struggled to find work in their communities. As a result, they embraced the inconsistent hobo life with the hopes of experiencing better financial luck elsewhere. More than two million men and 8,000 women became hobos during this era.

How did the average hobo live?

While the lives of hobos were grounded in a community, they were semi-detached from the financial hardships of their realities back home. Hobos frequently traveled together in groups on train cars, yet they were on their own in terms of finding work and would be left behind in situations of peril. Many went by nicknames or monikers that kept their identities concealed from strangers, police, train workers, and one another.

Also, hobos faced numerous physical hardships. Hopping onto moving trains wasn’t always a smooth endeavor. Some people lost limbs trying to catch a boxcar. Hobos also faced the threat of violence from police, potential employers, train security (affectionally called “bulls”), and the strangers they approached searching for food or shelter. In freezing weather, hobos had to stick out the cold, often nearly freezing to death if they couldn’t find a house or barn to rest in.

Hobos frequently traveled together in groups on train cars

Since life was often chaotic for hobos, developing a method of staying informed, aware, and alert of possible dangers (and of potential good fortune) helped provide stability to their unpredictable world. As their migratory community expanded and more became aware of the danger and goodwill in different locations, hobos developed a means of communication to make the world more friendly to navigate.

From this desire, hobo signs and symbols were born. Using chalk and coal to draw their symbols, hobos developed an entire language of graphics, all capable of informing fellow hobos about dangers, successes, optimistic locations, spots to steer clear from, and where to find work. What exactly were their hobo signs/symbols?

What are the hobo signs/symbols?

Photo Courtesy: [Wikimedia Commons]
Hobo signs and symbols were a method of communication employed by hobos that allowed them to leave notes about the places that they were passing through. Hobo signs/symbols could warn fellow hobos about dangerous towns or people, mark places where they had gotten free food and shelter, identify locations where free medical care was available, provide directions to areas where work was accessible, and much more.

These signs were essential ways for hobos to stay connected and keep one another safe on their perilous journeys. While they may have been searching for employment individually, they existed in the same community, and they worked to aid each other in their travels.

How did these signs work?

Hobo signs could be used to mark locations where hobos could have their basic needs met. The symbol for “get bread here” marked places where households or religious centers would offer leftover bread. The sign for “I ate” identified towns where other hobos had luck in getting a full meal. The symbol for “doctor won’t charge here” helped hobos identify places where they could seek medical care without having to pay for the services provided.

Certain signs could be used to inform hobos about the sorts of people that lived in an area. The symbols for “kind lady lives here,” or “kind gentleman lives here,” let a hobo know that a caring woman/man occupied those houses and may be able to provide shelter or food to hobos passing through. On the other hand, the sign for “man with gun lives here” let hobos know to steer clear of that individual’s yard, as they might shoot hobos who trespassed on their property.

The symbol for “get bread here” marked places where households or religious centers would offer leftover bread

Other hobo symbols could help hobos identify towns, cities, and households to steer clear from altogether. “Police will lock you up,” “dangerous place,” “home heavily guarded,” and “police are hostile” were all symbols that let hobos know to get out of dodge before they got harmed or arrested. Hobos understood that these signs came from hard-learned lessons, and, being a superstitious bunch as a whole, they took these warnings very seriously.

What were some of the most popular signs?

Do you want to become well-versed in hobo signs and symbols? These are some of the most popular symbols that were used to keep hobos safe, healthy, and fed.

Location Signs:

  • Arrow outside of a circle: Head that direction for food, water, shelter, or work.
  • Arrow in a circle: Nothing good in that direction.
  • Two arrows in a circle: Get out of town as quick as possible.
  • Empty circle: Nothing useful in that location.
  • Square with three lines/no top line: Good place to camp.
  • An ‘X’ under waves: Good place to camp, and has access to freshwater.
  • ‘X’ in a circle: Stop here for a handout.
  • Line with two loops in a circle: Courthouse/precinct.
  • Pitchfork: A good location to be in.
  • Pitchfork over a square with a dot: The neighborhood isn’t safe.
  • Boat-like half-circle with a dot: The community is indifferent towards hobos.

Home/People Signs:

  • Cat: Kind lady lives here.
  • Tophat and triangle: Rich people live here.
  • Tophat: A gentleman lives inside.
  • Line with two loops: Judge lives here.
  • Circle and square with dots in the middle: Angry man lives inside.
  • Cross with a circle in the upper-right corner: A doctor that won’t charge for their services.
  • Vertical line with four horizontal lines: A cop lives here.
  • Two side-by-side ‘w’s: A noisy dog lives inside.
  • Lowercase ‘r’: They’ll take care of you if you’re ill.
  • Half-circle (facing down): Dishonest person lives inside.
  • Triangle with tree limbs: Man with a gun lives here.
  • Two rectangles juxtaposed together: The homeowners will pay you to get rid of you.

A deeper dive — Related reading from the 101:

The hobo lifestyle would hardly exist without the Transcontinental Railroad

How did the Great Depression affect those who couldn’t seem to cope with their losses?