A moment of hobo appreciation

I passed a lovely bit of time today reading The American Hobo by Colin Beesley, a British academic paper about a quintessentially American phenomenon1. I’ve always found the romantic aspects of the hobo story fascinating (something that Utah Phillips has only encouraged), although I suspect I’m too soft to have lived that life even had I been alive at the right time.


Beesley’s paper is definitely worth the time it will take you to read it, if you have any interest in the history of that time period at all, and especially if you’ve ever been interested in the idea of a “hobo”. Mike Drake, I am looking at you.

Beesley also includes a hobo jargon glossary toward the end of the paper (which I’ve reproduced below), which triggered another of my special fascinations: jargons, slangs, cants, etc. Someday I’m going to do a massive post or series of posts on that subject, and I’ve queued up the hobo jargon for inclusion in that.

The paper also got me thinking about hobo signs again–you know the things I mean: those little symbols that hobos used to scratch in charcoal or chalk to send messages to each other about various places. (Something that I suspect is probably rooted in the patrin of the Roma, but that’s a whole other post.)

You might also recall that this kind of old school tagging had a bit of a resurgence earlier this decade in the form of “warchalking“.

Doing a bit of a search for “hobo signs” turned up a ton of examples, and also turned up an exhibit at the NSA of all places (well, the NSA’s museum, but still).

A couple of interesting notes from the writeup accompanying that exhibit:

In some places, hobos who drifted into town were not always welcome. In other places, they found those who were friendly and willing to help. Knowing where to go or whom to avoid was important to these travelers. However, hobos’ paths crossed infrequently, so the hobo community developed a written communication system of signs. Mysterious and temporary, these signs helped hobos move more safely around the country looking for work. A symbol on a mailbox, fence post, signpost, or tree told other hobos what to expect in the town or from the homeowner.

What’s interesting to note, as Liungman points out, is that the system developed at all. Hobos, in general, travel alone and enjoy their independence. And yet, they still congregate in hobo jungles or travel with an occasional partner only to split when they decide to go a different way. Despite this preference for solitude, they still feel a certain camaraderie with their fellow hobos, an obligation to assist their brethren – thus, the creation of the signs and symbols.

The signs were intentionally temporary. Hobos used chalk or charcoal to mark an immediate location. The signs wore off in time. This may have been because situations were frequently in flux. A farmer may initially be helpful, but later, as resources or work diminished, he may order the hobo away. A woman who first took pity from a hobo’s sad tale may become hardened after hearing too many.

Interestingly not mentioned in the piece is the essentially dynamic nature of the code–as “locals” discover what signs mean, they would start to tamper with the communication channel, either erasing them or putting up misleading ones, so the “current” code had to constantly change. And to keep up with the latest code you would need to meet up with group of other hobos. So not only is the fact that the system arose interesting, but there’s a weird dynamic where its existence keeps powering the need for hobos to meet up regularly in order to “keep current”, and that ties into the whole altruistic-and-yet-self-interested currents that would power this kind of system. The romantic in my does love the idea of the “current” codes passing hand-to-hand, although I love it even more in its perfect science fiction form.

I usually travel with some tire chalk2, so I should totally learn some of these signs and leave them on my travels. Someone else might come along and recognize them. You never know. And maybe I’ll meet up with someone who will whisper the new codes to me.

After the jump: the glossary, and a table defining some common hobo signs.


The gravel used for rail beds.
Bay Horse
Brand name of rubbing liniment for horses. Similar to bay rum.
A bedroll.
Front End of a baggage car.
Bridge and plank gang
A railroad maintenance crew.
A hobo who rode both steam-powered and diesel powered trains.
A policeman.
Canned heat
Strained Sterno consumed for the alcohol content.
Catch the westbound
Cinder bull
A railroad policeman.
All the cars that make up a particular train.
Fixtures at the ends of train cars used to connect one car to the other.
Courtesy call
A night’s stay in the town jail without being arrested. An opportunity to get in out of the cold and to eat a meal.
A detective.
A slow freight train.
Dumpster diving
Rummaging through dumpsters for food or other needed items.
Flashing rear-end device on the train. It has taken the place of the caboose.
Gay cat
A person on the road who, when the going gets tough, can afford to purchase a ticket (Irwin 84).
Go in the hole
To pull onto a siding to allow another train of higher priority to pass by.
A train car with low walls and no roof.
Gun boat
An empty can used for cooking. Usually a coffee can.
Harness bull
A policeman in uniform.
An extra engine added temporarily to a train to assist in pulling it up a steep grade.
High iron
The track in a railroad yard that serves as the main line or through line.
Shantytowns built of junk and cardboard by the poor. Named after Herbert Hoover, the 31st president of the United States of America (1929-1933).
A fast train.
Thieves who often targeted a hobo who had just received his pay.
A man who travels the road with an underage boy.
An encampment where hobos stayed for brief periods before moving on. “To jungle up” is to stay in a jungle.
Jungle buzzard
Someone in a hobo jungle who tries to avoid sharing in the work and expense.
A handout on a plate at the back door of a house. Eaten on the back steps while balancing the plate on one’s knees.
A movable joint in the coupler.
Live train
A consist of railcars with engines hooked to it. A train that could move at any time.
A train that makes many stops and does much work in a short distance.
A handout which is packaged to be taken along on the road.
Mission stiff
A bum that spends much time in missions.
Mixed freight
A train consisting of a variety of cars.
“P” farms
Farms where prisoners worked.
Pearl diver
A dishwasher.
A young boy travelling on the road with a younger man.
A long train rattling along the tracks, resembling a rattlesnake.
Red cards
A membership card of the International Workers of the World (IWW).
A refrigerated freight car.
The steel structural bars that were below the old boxcars. A very dangerous and difficult place for hobos to ride.
Rule of the match
An insulting gesture of handing a match to someone. It is the same as saying. “You are not welcome around this jungle fire. Go build your own someplace else”.
Scoping the drag
Looking for a good ride on a freight train as it slows down.
Seam squirrels
A meal given as a handout with the offer to eat it in the comfort at the kitchen table.
Fruit with spots beginning to form. Farmers and groceries were often willing to give it to hobos.
Stack train
A train made up of topless, low-sided cars which carry large containers sometimes stacked two high.
Railriders that travel with light gear and on fast freights.
Walking dandruff
A short name for the International Workers of the World (IWW)
Yard dick
A railroad detective.
Hobo symbols
Symbol Definition
Alcohol in this town.
Authorities here are alert.
Bad water.
Barking dog here.
You can camp here.
Crime committed here. Not safe.
Dangerous neighbourhood.
Be ready to defend yourself.
Doctor here won’t charge.
Fresh water. Safe campsite.
Police frown on hobos here.
Owners will give to get rid of you.
Good road to follow.
Go this way.
A man with a gun lives here.
Good place for a handout.
Hit the road.
This is a well-guarded house.
Ill-tempered man lives here.
This owner is in.
Jail (or prison).
Religious talk will get you a meal here.
A judge lives here.
A kind lady live here.
A kind gentleman lives here.
Kind woman lives here. Tell a pitiful story.
There is nothing to be gained here.
This is NOT a safe place.
There’s no use going this way.
An officer of the law lives here.
The owner is out.
Free telephone.
Keep quiet.
These people are rich.
The sky’s the limit.
Road spoiled. Full of other hobos.
There are thieves about.
Hold your tongue.
Good place to catch a train.
Trolley stop.
A vicious dog lives here.

(Canadian Geographic also has a table in a more pen-and-ink style.)

  1. The paper is hosted by northbankfred.com, a site dedicated to trains and the hobo experience. Be sure to browse around and check out some of the other articles, photographs, or if you’re really hard-core, the stories!(back)
  2. For any emergency veve that needs creating. Don’t ask.(back)

  3 comments for “A moment of hobo appreciation

  1. Kira
    May 6, 2008 at 12:44 am

    Emergency veve? Of course I have to ask. I hope you’re not talking to the Baron in your dreams.

  2. May 6, 2008 at 7:42 am

    Not him, no. That’s not the kind of help I might need while on a mission.

    Now, the Opener of the Way? Mèt Gran Chemen? Him I might need to ask for a favour while travelling. You never know when St. Christopher isn’t going to cut it and you might need to call in some backup.

    (Insert here my standard observations about Catholics, saints, and their medallions vs vodou, the loa, and their drogues.)

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Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada
This work by Chris McLaren is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada.