Hobo Symbols

  • October 23rd, 2008 by Masood

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HobosSymbolsHobo symbols

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.




Hobo symbols

There are 9 comments to “Hobo Symbols”

  1. Jess says:

    For a dramatization of “The Hobo Code”, watch or read the synopsis of the Mad Men episode of the same name: http://www.amctv.com/originals/madmen/episode8. In flashbacks to ad-man Don Draper’s Depression-era childhood, we see how he first learned the value of symbols in communicating ideas. Highly recommended viewing!

  2. Custom Tags says:

    Good explanation of hobo signs. The most knowledgeable section of the post is the chart of hobo symbols with their explanation. I have also seen many such signs in my country and an interesting fact which I have noticed is the meaning of most of the symbols are same. I really like the way you collected the information about hobo and tramp signs and presented it in a nice manner. If you want more details on such identification labels then you can explore: http://www.lemproductsinc.com . LEM Products, Inc can give a new modernized look to these traditional hobo signs and provide durable identification products.

  3. Thank you! My mother left us a story in her journal about their home being marked as a kindhearted lady’s. (She was raising 9 kids on a poor minister’s salary, so she learned of this with some chagrin.)
    We’re preparing to publish a novel set in this era now, and that’s how I found your site.

  4. Donna Viera says:

    I would be interested in talking with Celeste Bennett who has her mother’s journal with info about hobo marking and publishing a novel. I am doing research on hobo signs for a class and would be interested in chatting with Celeste. Is it possible for a connection to be made through this website?

  5. […] behind and the mad dogs chasing after. It’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. I’m memorizing the hobo symbols and joining The Sacred Order of the Bindlestiff and the Coal Stump Petroglyph. I’m pulling myself […]

  6. […] to get by one day. Might be nice if he remembers you fondly.Be seeing you.Hobo sign image from: http://empax.org/blog/hobo-symbols Tweet The Town Scryer is a mixed bag of humor, socio-political observations and ephemera from the […]

  7. […] other know about the conditions at a particular stop. You can a read a brief summary about this here. Sitting down for dinner after a hard days […]

  8. […] using charcoal, which would eventually wash out in the rain. Hobos have also been known to create signals in trees using string or rope. These days it’s likely that hobos have more sophisticated means of […]

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