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The Hobo Code

Article #190 • Written by Daniel Lew

During times of economic hardship, people turn to the road to see if they can make their luck somewhere else. As such, back in the days of the Great Depression, the U.S. saw an increase in the hobo population. Walking along long roads or hitching rides on trains, these hobos would travel about, looking for a place where they could get lucky and find a better home. Of course, such a life of wanderlust was difficult, especially since one has to travel without knowing anything of the landscape or local populace.

To combat this ignorance, the hobos came up with an ingenious sign language to communicate to each other along the way. This is not like the sign language that hearing-impaired people use to communicate; rather, it was markings and drawings that hobos would leave along the road for their fellow travelers. Whether a sign told others of locations of important places in town, the attitudes of the locals to tramps, or the best places to beg, the hobo sign language helped many get by in hard times.

The variety of messages passed between hobos are incredible. There are some basic traveling symbols such as "go this way," "don't go that way," or "get out fast." Then there's praises and warnings of the locals - "doctor, no charge," "police officer lives here, not kind to tramps," "dangerous neighborhood," "you may sleep in barn." Some of my favorites messages I've heard of are "good lady lives here, tell a hard luck story," "fake illness here," "road spoiled, full of other hobos."

Hobo signs were typically drawn onto utility poles using charcoal or some other type of temporary writing material that would wash out in time with the weather. Sometimes they would write on railroad trestle abutments, outcropping rocks, or even on houses when referring to those who lived inside. Billboards, when they first appeared, were also prime places for signs. When more automobiles, and consequentially more roads, were built, hobos created their own extensive system for charting routes for those who would travel the highway.

The hobo sign language was hardly a formal system, constantly in flux. The signs had to keep up with new ways of life (such as the addition of roads), and like most languages it had its own dialects in different parts of the country. Also, the signs were often changed when it became evident that locals were writing hobo signs for their own amusement. One had to keep meeting up at hobo gathering spots to stay on top of the current system.

Much of the hobo sign language has been lost with time, due to its temporary nature. The need for the language has decreased as well; there are many fewer hobos now than there were in the past, and the progress of communicative technology has made the use of signs somewhat outdated. Still, it is nice to know that people will leave along hints for how to get by for fellow knights of the road.

Article written by Daniel Lew, published on 27 May 2006. Daniel is a contributing editor for DamnInteresting.com.

Article design by Alan Bellows. Edited by Alan Bellows.
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56 Comments
Alan Bellows
Posted 27 May 2006 at 09:56 pm

The first rule of Hobo Club is: You do not talk about Hobo Club!


Psyanide
Posted 27 May 2006 at 10:50 pm

The second rule of Hobo Club is : YOU DO NOT TALK ABOUT HOBO CLUB!!


Pazza
Posted 27 May 2006 at 11:02 pm

Third Rule: No feet on the couch :P


Hayley
Posted 28 May 2006 at 12:28 am

When I was little I told my mum that I wanted to be a hobo when I grew up. She told me I couldn't and, thus, we see another small child's dreams relentlessly crushed under the cruel pain of adult reality...*sigh*.


klone
Posted 28 May 2006 at 12:34 am

"hitching rides on trains" We call it "hoppin a freight" most engineers and bulls (railroad police) wont just let you "hitch a ride" on a train. And Haley... you can still be a Hobo, never give up the dream.


HunterKiller_
Posted 28 May 2006 at 12:38 am

Hayley said: "When I was little I told my mum that I wanted to be a hobo when I grew up. She told me I couldn't and, thus, we see another small child's dreams relentlessly crushed under the cruel pain of adult reality…*sigh*."

You poor deprived child.


Psyanide
Posted 28 May 2006 at 12:47 am

Hayley said: "When I was little I told my mum that I wanted to be a hobo when I grew up. She told me I couldn't and, thus, we see another small child's dreams relentlessly crushed under the cruel pain of adult reality…*sigh*."

qq


Mark
Posted 28 May 2006 at 01:07 am

I heard that hobos now communicate entirely by telepathy.


denki
Posted 28 May 2006 at 01:31 am

Mark said: "I heard that hobos now communicate entirely by telepathy."

i sensed that hobos now communicate entirely by telepathy


alias
Posted 28 May 2006 at 02:16 am

I once gave a Hobo a sandwich... I wonder what the symbol was...


albatrossish
Posted 28 May 2006 at 03:31 am

Reminds me of "warchalking" (drawing arcane symbols on the pavement to indicate free wireless). Innaresting!


Kafka
Posted 28 May 2006 at 03:37 am

In Australia, Hobo's no code or language. If they can manage to get past you're front door without breaking it i.e. If you were stupid enough to leave it open, they can come in, sit on the floor, demand to be given water and food and here's the thing: Legally, YOU HAVE TO. It's a very very old law, but it's still in effect. And they won't leave until you give them something. And if you leave the house to get assistance, they'll squat in your house and NEVER leave. Those hobo bastards.

The Moral is: Never leave your door unlocked!


JustAnotherName
Posted 28 May 2006 at 05:02 am

During the Slaved Era, elaborate quilts were made to help those running away do so safely. The slave owners of the quilt makers had no idea they were creating several quilts to communicate. They would hang them out a window "to air out" and there were several "signs." This way is safe. Not safe, travel Westward. Safe House. Danger. Well, I kind of made them up from what I "remember."


Jeremy
Posted 28 May 2006 at 07:47 am

At this point I feel the need to recommend John Hodgeman's book "The Areas of My Expertise", which contains a detailed account of the Hobo War and more on the Hobo Code, including the dreaded symbol signaling the hobos to rise up and overthrow the government.


icenine
Posted 28 May 2006 at 08:12 am

I am a hobo.

○╖╞ »


Chris McLaren
Posted 28 May 2006 at 08:49 am

I just want to point out that this custom is much older that the North American hoboes.

The Roma ("Gypsies") have been using a system of symbols to mark this kind of information for hundreds of years. In the Roman language, the markers are called patrin (which I think means "leaf"). Patrin were innocuous markers or signs or messages--often made of twigs, flowers and other natural materials--found at the roadside, sometimes tied with a thin ribbon or cloth, and used by traveling Gypsies to give directions and advice to other Gypsies.


Bolens
Posted 28 May 2006 at 08:52 am

icenine said: ○╖╞ »

I surrender. Also, thank you for providing only the first part of your telepathic message in written form. It would have been embarrasing for all those already under the spell of your global conquest.


just_dave
Posted 28 May 2006 at 09:28 am

Reminds me of "warchalking" (drawing arcane symbols on the pavement to indicate free wireless). Innaresting!

So, wireless laptop users are the modern iteration of the hobo?


DanWearsPants
Posted 28 May 2006 at 10:31 am

Abe Simpson: See, these are hobo signs! Good food... Sexy daughter... Mass hobo grave in cellar! NYAAH!!


1c3d0g
Posted 28 May 2006 at 01:30 pm

Kafka: sucks for you then. Over here, I just grab my double-barreled shotgun and point it in their face...get the fuck out!


Phill
Posted 28 May 2006 at 01:55 pm

1c3d0g said: "Kafka: sucks for you then. Over here, I just grab my double-barreled shotgun and point it in their face…get the fuck out!"

I use Soy Propulsion.


The Swear Jar
Posted 28 May 2006 at 05:05 pm

Good article!

I finally decided to join the club...

I really didn't want to, the hobos made me do it (the sign they used looked like they were bending something over and thrusting their hips, whatever that means...)


bobo
Posted 28 May 2006 at 07:30 pm

Kafka said: "In Australia, Hobo's no code or language. If they can manage to get past you're front door without breaking it i.e. If you were stupid enough to leave it open, they can come in, sit on the floor, demand to be given water and food and here's the thing: Legally, YOU HAVE TO. It's a very very old law, but it's still in effect. And they won't leave until you give them something. And if you leave the house to get assistance, they'll squat in your house and NEVER leave. Those hobo bastards.

The Moral is: Never leave your door unlocked!"

Stop telling bullshit stories about Australia.


cornerpocket
Posted 28 May 2006 at 07:44 pm

Seems I remember a George C. Scott movie that was about the hard life of the hobo and one who took a challenge to hop a freight that was impossible, due to a sadistic 'bull' whose motto was apparently "No Free Rides". Probably romanticizing some really hard times and making the social tragedy more acceptable by inventing heroic characters to salve the guilty consciences of the oppressors. We didn't destroy families, towns and entire aspects of civilization for the sake of class greed and individual wealth...we developed character, thinned the gene pool and helped develop creativity in the poor slobs that were oppressed and sacrificed to advance capitalism and security for the more deserving who know how to play the game.


cornerpocket
Posted 28 May 2006 at 07:47 pm

Whoops! How did I step up on that soapbox? I just wanted a better view and then..... sorry, got carried away


kwiksand
Posted 28 May 2006 at 10:38 pm

bobo said: "Stop telling bullshit stories about Australia."

Kafka's story was a little far fetched, but we do have squatters law. I'm not sure how its enforced though.

A friend of mine's dad had an unused Rental property, he eventually found someone interested in renting it and went to show them round, only to find a family living in the house. He eventually got the property back, however there was a legal battle for a while involved in removing them.


Melon Head
Posted 28 May 2006 at 11:33 pm

I remember watching "The Littlest Hobo"on TV when I was little.

That German Shepherd kicked Lassie's ass.


Asshe
Posted 28 May 2006 at 11:46 pm

Kafka said: "In Australia, Hobo's no code or language. If they can manage to get past you're front door without breaking it i.e. If you were stupid enough to leave it open, they can come in, sit on the floor, demand to be given water and food and here's the thing: Legally, YOU HAVE TO. It's a very very old law, but it's still in effect. And they won't leave until you give them something. And if you leave the house to get assistance, they'll squat in your house and NEVER leave. Those hobo bastards.

The Moral is: Never leave your door unlocked!"

Kafka, I don't know where the hell in Australia you're from but I think there might be *hobo sign* bad water there... I for one leave my back door open and have never been accosted by hoboes... and have never heard of that law despite being a law graduate.

But then I have to admit that I've never represented anyone who has been invaded by hoboes.
Damn Interesting!


JustAnotherName
Posted 29 May 2006 at 04:21 am

cornerpocket said: "Seems I remember a George C. Scott movie that was about the hard life of the hobo and one who took a challenge to hop a freight that was impossible, due to a sadistic 'bull' whose motto was apparently "No Free Rides". Probably romanticizing some really hard times and making the social tragedy more acceptable by inventing heroic characters to salve the guilty consciences of the oppressors. We didn't destroy families, towns and entire aspects of civilization for the sake of class greed and individual wealth…we developed character, thinned the gene pool and helped develop creativity in the poor slobs that were oppressed and sacrificed to advance capitalism and security for the more deserving who know how to play the game."

LOL - I enjoyed your own comment on the "comment" above. I was perplexed but moved on as I felt it was a bit too much for me to decipher at 7:15 AM....and then your next comment was very amusing.


tamills
Posted 30 May 2006 at 06:35 am

Hobos in this country go back to the US civil war in the mid 19th century. Soldiers who had been discharged, particularly from the South, struggled to find work. Often they would hit the road looking to find farms where they could hire themselves out as laborers. The carried very little with them, normally just a bundle of whatever few belongings they had and, often, a hoe for doing the farm work. These "Hoe Boys" eventually just became known as hobos.


ho boy
Posted 30 May 2006 at 08:39 am

These "Hoe Boys" eventually just became known as hobos.

Stop telling bullshit stories about the US.


tamills
Posted 30 May 2006 at 08:57 am

hehe


matthill25
Posted 30 May 2006 at 10:23 am

albatrossish said: "Reminds me of "warchalking" (drawing arcane symbols on the pavement to indicate free wireless). Innaresting!"

The idea of the Hobo Code was instrumental in the creation of Warchalking. Someone read a similar article and appropriated the technique!


schuylercat
Posted 31 May 2006 at 09:54 am

I heard all about this! It's in the papers right now!!! See: there's this group in Rome called Opus Dei who is hiding secrets about what religeon is REALLY all about, so they send out this weird-ass albino monk who hops a frieght and chases people all over, and then Tom Hanks and that hot French babe find out a hobo developed some sort of code because he was married to Mary Magdelene and had babies named Mona Lisa, then Anna Nicole sued him and took his money and ran off with the monk, all that. So the moral of the story is: hobos are Catholics, right?

Dit dit dit, dah dah dah, dit dit dit...


lucymalfoy
Posted 01 June 2006 at 08:19 pm

Well, this is all good, just so long as the hobos aren't GANGSTA HOBOS.


Sapia
Posted 14 June 2006 at 09:19 pm

Asshe said: "Kafka, I don't know where the hell in Australia you're from but I think there might be *hobo sign* bad water there… I for one leave my back door open and have never been accosted by hoboes… and have never heard of that law despite being a law graduate.

But then I have to admit that I've never represented anyone who has been invaded by hoboes.

Damn Interesting!"

I've known someone who lives in Sydney Inner West area who has had someone walk in their front door, sit on their couch and refuse to move until they fed them. The police were called and the person was ejected.
They were completely harmless, but the event did shake my friends sense of personal security a bit.


Emmy
Posted 15 June 2006 at 09:35 pm

Once I gave a "hobo"outside MacDonald's a meal, because I was feeling generous. But as I drove away, in the rear view mirror, I saw him throw it into the bushes!!! Stupid drunk/drugged guys.


Emmy
Posted 15 June 2006 at 09:35 pm

My dad showed me a whole page of hobo symbols to me once.


justdig
Posted 05 July 2006 at 03:41 pm

In case you're interested, these are referenced in the film The Magnet, a not-very-funny British comedy film from a generation or two back that nobody younger than 50 except (for some reason) my mother would have seen.


Scharneeigh
Posted 25 October 2006 at 09:17 pm

Kafka said: "In Australia, Hobo's no code or language. If they can manage to get past you're front door without breaking it i.e. If you were stupid enough to leave it open, they can come in, sit on the floor, demand to be given water and food and here's the thing: Legally, YOU HAVE TO. It's a very very old law, but it's still in effect. And they won't leave until you give them something. And if you leave the house to get assistance, they'll squat in your house and NEVER leave. Those hobo bastards.


The Moral is: Never leave your door unlocked!"

Thanks Kafka, you have just made me feel ashamed to be associated with you; that is, we are both Aussies. Damn you and your bad grammar! (It's 'your,' not 'you're.')


Scharneeigh
Posted 25 October 2006 at 09:17 pm

That is, if you actually are Australian.


Badeye
Posted 02 January 2007 at 07:56 pm

Had my share of hobo'ing as a youngster, spent time in the Knoxville Chain Gang in the 60's for riding freights and escaped after 5 days , a real hell hole. But wouldn't trade the memories for nothing.


rev.felix
Posted 30 January 2007 at 08:34 am

Looks like somebody's been beaking the first and second rules.


rev.felix
Posted 30 January 2007 at 08:34 am

Looks like somebody's been breaking the first and second rules.


jaker
Posted 19 March 2007 at 06:45 pm

i once was a hobo but than i found a hot gay man we

had some fun


jaker
Posted 19 March 2007 at 06:46 pm

wat r these gay rules u keep talking about


jaker
Posted 19 March 2007 at 06:47 pm

hi james


jaker
Posted 19 March 2007 at 06:48 pm

rev.felix said: "Looks like somebody's been breaking the first and second rules."

stupie quotes


rev.felix
Posted 20 March 2007 at 06:50 am

jaker said: "wat r these gay rules u keep talking about"

Ever heard of fight club?


AesirVanirJotnar
Posted 17 October 2007 at 01:47 am

Scharneeigh said: "Thanks Kafka, you have just made me feel ashamed to be associated with you; that is, we are both Aussies. Damn you and your bad grammar! (It's 'your,' not 'you're.')"

lol, "you're" is short for "you are".
What makes more sense:
1) Never leave you are door open.
2) Never leave your door open.
Personally I think No.2 looks better. He was right is "your" not "you are"


Riny
Posted 29 May 2008 at 02:13 pm

OMG! This is so cool! OMG! Yes i know i am crazy. Oh and by the way there is like a ton of other web sites that say different stuff for the signs. can anyone like tell which one really means?


allduerespect88
Posted 11 January 2009 at 03:55 am

Nothing beats the hobo life, stabbing people with my hobo knife.


patrick
Posted 12 April 2014 at 09:09 pm

Kafka said: "In Australia, Hobo's no code or language. If they can manage to get past you're front door without breaking it i.e. If you were stupid enough to leave it open, they can come in, sit on the floor, demand to be given water and food and here's the thing: Legally, YOU HAVE TO. It's a very very old law, but it's still in effect. And they won't leave until you give them something. And if you leave the house to get assistance, they'll squat in your house and NEVER leave. Those hobo bastards.

The Moral is: Never leave your door unlocked!"


patrick
Posted 12 April 2014 at 09:12 pm

Kafka said: "In Australia, Hobo's no code or language. If they can manage to get past you're front door without breaking it i.e. If you were stupid enough to leave it open, they can come in, sit on the floor, demand to be given water and food and here's the thing: Legally, YOU HAVE TO. It's a very very old law, but it's still in effect. And they won't leave until you give them something. And if you leave the house to get assistance, they'll squat in your house and NEVER leave. Those hobo bastards.

The Moral is: Never leave your door unlocked!"

!

A quick boot to the skull and they would rather quickly or get a flying lesson for free .


Shell
Posted 15 August 2014 at 02:24 am

After this many years he'll probably never see it but...

cornerpocket, the movie you were speaking of is "Emperor of the North Pole". The title is the honorific bestowed on the "King of the Hobos", the one all the other hobos look up to. In this case his road name was "A#1" and he was played by Lee Marvin. Ernest Borgnine was the baddest-ass railroad bull (I can't remember his name) and Keith Carradine was "Cigarette", a cocky young 'bo who wanted to be like A#1. It's a great film. I don't know if you can ever find a copy of it.


KP
Posted 19 December 2014 at 08:25 am

My mother remembers, when she was a child during the Depression, a Hobo knocked on their door and asked for something to eat. My grandmother made him a sandwich and a cup of coffee, then gave him a nickel for another cup of coffee on the road. People were having terrible times, and she had compassion for those who were even worse off. After that, she noticed that men would walk past the other houses on the street, and come to hers. She always did the same, a sandwich, cup of coffee and a nickel. She asked one why they only came to her house and then learned about the markings which told others which houses were good to them. She never turned anyone away, even if she only had peanut butter to give.

This a very cool thing I just learned about my grandmother.


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