During the period of the Great Depression between 1930 and 1942 the American hobo ranks swelled. By any estimate easily more than one million men, women and children were riding the rails on any given day in search of work. Given the broad spectrum of participants in the mass migration of skilled and unskilled workers- the hobo culture reached unprecedented levels of sophistication. Contact with wandering hobos was a common experience and they infused the American language with a wealth of popular lingo that is still in use today.
In addition, hobos created a system of symbols to communicate and assist fellow travelers. These symbols would be scratched or chalked on the gate of a residence, barnyard or somewhere in a rail yard. These symbols translated into things like “good place for a handout,” “fake illness here,” “beware of dog,” or “owner has a bad temper.” Hobos also created signals in trees by bending young branches with a string or rope. Time would pass and the branch would mature and remain permanently bent, meaning its owner was sympathetic to hobos.
While hobo symbols are rarely used today, individuals continue to ride the rails. Modern day hobos are an eclectic mix of subcultures consisting of “gutter punks”, illegal immigrants, the homeless, graffiti artists and bored graphic designers seeking adventure. Freight hopping remains one of the last true red blooded adventures in a post frontier America.