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Hobo Code: The Signs and Symbols Used by Travelers of Old

Joel is a history-loving hobo who travels, usually on foot, across the United States. He is always homeward bound but never quite there yet.

In the early 20th century, thousands of individuals roamed from town to town in search of food, work, or simply a change of scenery.

In the early 20th century, thousands of individuals roamed from town to town in search of food, work, or simply a change of scenery.

Signs of the Times

The early 1900s were a unique period in U.S. history that brought displacement to over 500,000 people across the country. Many of those displaced became hobos and embraced a transient existence, moving through society seeking work. As they crisscrossed the country, often following the railways, hobos faced danger, hunger, and illness. Work was rare and inconsistent, so these travelers most often had to subsist on meager handouts as they moved from place to place.

Hobos communicated with one another by carving or drawing symbols on trees, fenceposts, bridges, and even buildings to offer directional guidance to other travelers with warnings of what may or may not lie ahead. What follows are 60 of the most common hobo symbols along with their translations and interpretations. Most of these are relics from the early 20th century, but some are still used by travelers and trainhoppers today.

Hobo Markings 1–20

1–20

1–20

Symbol Meanings 1–20

  1. Kind lady lives here: Hobos who found or left this mark could rely on a bite to eat with nothing expected in return. These women were generally welcoming, mother-like individuals who had great compassion for respectful hobos.
  2. Man with gun lives here: This symbol warned hobos that knocking on the door or even stepping on the property would be met with a show of hostility and possibly force. Those who came across it knew to move on and move quickly.
  3. Jail has cooties: Sometimes, hobos would allow themselves to be put in situations that would earn them jail time on purpose in the hope of escaping foul weather for a few days and scoring a free meal or two. This symbol warned that the town’s jail was dirty or bug-ridden and not a good lodging choice.
  4. Okay to sleep in barn: There were many variations of this symbol, but if a hobo discovered one, they would know that a nearby barn or hayloft was a good place to sleep or escape foul weather (either by sneaking in or asking permission).
  5. Beware—thieves about: Keep your two eyes on their ten fingers—finding this sign at a hobo camp or meeting spot indicated that theft was suspected among the company there. Those who saw it were warned to keep their belongings close by at all times, especially while sleeping.
  6. Good water; good place to camp: Miles between towns were often many. It could take days to reach one's next destination. Finding a safe, undisturbed place to camp that had good clean water and plenty of firewood nearby was difficult. Finding this symbol was a relief, especially after a long walk.
  7. Be prepared to defend yourself: Coming across this symbol, a hobo would make sure that they stayed alert for aggressive behavior among other hobos or in areas that frowned upon them. Any sign of cowardice was an indicator that you were easily overcome and could be robbed or abused.
  8. Crooked man lives here: Sometimes, a home or business owner would invite a hobo to work for food or cash but then run them off with no payment after the work was done. This symbol warned of this sort of situation but was also used to identify men who were abusive to children or deceptive in general.
  9. Tell a pitiful story: Experienced hobos with some acting chops could easily manipulate potential marks by telling a hard-luck story or assuming a pitiful look. This worked especially well for juvenile, teen, and female hobos.
  10. Police are hostile: Oftentimes, police and town officials were outwardly physically aggressive toward any hobo regardless of their actions. In some cases, this was purposefully done to secure an arrest and put a hobo to work for free.

11. Get bread here: Hobos became very good misers, and most learned to make much out of little. Even less-fortunate of homes could sometimes spare a slice of stale bread or a leftover roll. If a bread symbol could be found, there was a chance of a simple meal and a full belly

12. Doctor lives here: Life on the road (and on the rails) was hard and brutal. “Marking” the homes of doctors or even people with basic medical knowledge could mean the difference between life or death for a future passerby.

13. Get cursed out here: Hobos were regarded in some towns as human trash, and certain folks took pleasure in verbally demeaning and insulting any hobo who happened by their way. In areas like this, the law would take measures against any hobo who retaliated in any way.

14. Wet town; alcohol here: The symbol of an open mug meant that this town serves alcohol. This same symbol drawn without the top would indicate that this is a “dry” town.

15. Go around this town: If a hobo had an unpleasant experience in a town, they communicated it with this symbol. Those who came across it were advised to take the long way around to avoid trouble.

16. Go this way: This was a common directional sign that indicated the right direction to go when faced with a crossroads or intersection. By heading in the direction indicated by the line, other hobos could save time and avoid danger.

17. Dogs in garden: Dogs were often staked or left free to roam within the boundaries of garden plots to keep would-be robbers from plucking vegetables. Hobos who experienced such an unpleasant surprise would warn others who might see the garden as an opportunity to "shop" for their evening’s meal.

18. Judge lives here: Disturbing the home of a judge or other agent of the law was a good way to get thrown in jail quickly.

19. Kind gentleman lives here: A top hat represented a kind or rich gentleman, and a triangle represented a home. Together, they indicated that this was the house of a kind or rich gentleman or family.

20. I went this way: If two hobos agreed to meet up down the road, whoever got to a landmark or structure first would leave an arrow symbol along with their moniker (road name) to let their pal know that they would be waiting in the next closest town.

Hobo Markings 21–40

all-things-hobo-signs-and-symbols

Guide to Symbols 21–40

21. Jail is okay: As a hobo, sooner or later, going to jail was inevitable. There were occasions, however, when a hobo would actually “want” to be locked up for night or two. Sometimes, it was a survival tactic to get a meal or avoid approaching danger. The trick was to find a jail that was clean and not dangerous and then get arrested.

22. Table feed: Feeds were far and few between—at least feeds that were specifically for hobos. There were, however, functions that would tolerate hobos attending, such as church gatherings. When an event like this was discovered, a hobo might let others know using the table feed sign.

23. Get out of town quick: Only enter this town if you have to. Get your business done and get out as quickly as possible. This code warned of possible conflict and was a message to keep your head down, try not to be obvious, and keep to yourself as you pass through.

24. Railroad men look the other way: Rail workers and railroad police could be some of the cruelest and roughest of the people hobos would run into. There were, however, sections of rail that rail police didn’t care about where they would ignore hobos or allow infractions in exchange for money or stolen valuables.

25. Owner is out: This symbol could apply to a home or a business where the owner was not present for long periods of time. This symbol turned in the opposite direction meant that the owner or occupant more than likely was present.

26. Bad water: Don’t drink the water here; it will make you sick. Waste disposal into streams and other bodies of water was often poorly regulated, and this symbol gave warning to all that the water was likely not sanitary.

27. Money for work here: This is a good place to work for money. Hobo jobs generally consisted of hard work with low pay, but there were opportunities that sometimes allowed a strong, steady hobo some longer-term security. This symbol could also indicate the availability of migratory farm-work jobs.

28. Chain gang: In locations where the jail was connected to a chain-gang work scheme, a hobo who saw this symbol would move away as quickly as possible to avoid being roped into a position on an unpaid work crew.

29. Easy marks: This symbol boasted of the ease of gleaning money or food from a town or group of individuals. The "marks” were often well-meaning people, so this symbol also indicated that the area was likely a comfortable place to be.

30. I ate: This was good news for a hobo entering an unfamiliar town. This symbol encouraged hobos who followed by letting them know that their next meal may be close.

Hobos frequently traveled great distances only inches from danger.

Hobos frequently traveled great distances only inches from danger.

31. Money here: Working for food kept the belly full, but cold, hard cash was also needed for some of life’s necessities (including a “nip” from time to time). This symbol provided a clue to the hot spots. Work for money was always welcome when a hobo was trying to break free, even temporarily, from the transient lifestyle.

32. Crime happened here: Hobos were a superstitious bunch. A code such as this was scrawled where a major crime was committed. It warned that this area could be a dangerous place.

33. Help if you are hurt: Minor injuries or sickness could lead to major setbacks for hobos. It was good to know where it was safe to seek help when it was needed.

34. Cowards; will pay to get rid of you: Hobos had a tendency to cause fear in some households or towns that had little or no protection. Residents would gladly offer food or money rather than deal with confrontations with hobos.

35. Nothing happening here: This was a general statement that the approaching community had very little in the way or resources. It was better to walk through and continue on in search of a better place.

36. Good place to catch train: Hobos' travels quite frequently revolved around the rails. This symbol provided information that was especially valuable to less-experienced hobos who needed to figure out where to safely “hop” a ride.

37. Good place to sleep: This sign guided the weary hobo to shelter that provided an element of protection or warmth. Barns, bridges, and abandoned buildings were prime camping spots.

38. Keep quiet; baby here: One thing that most hobos agreed upon was that it was important to protect and respect young families. This symbol would remind hobos of their code and instruct those who saw it to be quiet and not to disturb folks.

39. Policeman lives here: This sign saved many hobos from making the mistake of knocking on the door of a policeman or law officer and getting thrown in jail—or worse—a chain-gang work crew.

40. (Joe) is waiting in town: If two hobos agreed to meet up further down the road, the one who got there first would leave a message that showed their moniker (road name) and indicated that they would be waiting in the next closest town.

Hobo Markings 41–60

all-things-hobo-signs-and-symbols

Symbol Meanings 41–60

41. Fake illness here: Faking an illness or injury could get a hobo a meal, a place to rest, or even money depending on how well they could act. A hobo that feigned a nasty cough, for instance, might end up with some money to encourage them to leave the area.

42. Hold your tongue: In some towns, hobos would generally be ignored unless they brought notice to themselves by verbally responding to rude comments. If you came across this sign, it let you know that you were better off not engaging in conversations.

43. Stay quiet: Move quietly and keep your head down. Walk in the shadows as much as possible and do not disturb any livestock or animals that might announce your presence. This symbol advised caution.

44. Good road to follow: When leaving the path of the rails, a symbol like this could save a hobo unnecessary and unproductive exploration by letting them know that a road or trail was a good choice and presented opportunity.

45. Policewoman lives here: Hobos found that the best “marks” were usually women. There were times, however, that knocking on the door of a policewoman would end up backfiring. It was important to stay away from homes around signs that indicated the presence of any law official.

46. Bad: Any time a single carved or drawn round dot was displayed with another symbol, it meant “no," "bad," "do not," etc. In some cases, good symbols were “corrected” if the message had changed.

47. Telephone here: As rare as they were, if an event occurred that required calling home or phoning someone about an opportunity, it was good to know where a telephone could be located.

48. Dry town: This symbol took the shape of an upside-down cup and let travelers know that this town did not sell or allow alcohol. Don't try to buy it, and don't display it if you have it.

49. Police will lock you up: This sign told hobos to steer clear. For no reason at all, police would arrest you and put you in jail to either keep favor with townspeople or to add you to their own private free-labor workforce.

50. Church or religious people: This symbol could be both good and bad. Food or shelter offered by a compassionate group of religious people would be a welcome find even if it meant being subjected to a harsh sermon. On the other hand, some strict and pious congregations viewed hobos as products of sin and didn't treat them as kindly.

This Atlanta statue depicting a man with a bedroll feeding a pigeon pays homage to the hobos of the early 20th century.

This Atlanta statue depicting a man with a bedroll feeding a pigeon pays homage to the hobos of the early 20th century.

51. Dangerous man lives here: Hobos avoided conflict as much as possible. This symbol served as a warning to avoid a home known for criminal or violent behavior. Police would not typically assist a hobo in the event of a confrontation.

52. Authorities are alert: Police and political figures in some towns tried to keep their areas hobo-free and were constantly on the lookout. A hobo who was fortunate enough to spot this symbol could save themself a lot of trouble.

53. Poor people live here: This symbol earned a town a level of respect from hobos. They more than anyone else understood the hardships of life and would not bother people they knew to be struggling.

54. Dangerous place: This sign was a severe warning to stay away at all costs. To proceed further would be to risk bodily harm or worse. Move on quickly.

55. Workhouse jail: This sign warned visitors to do their business and leave as quickly as possible. If your timing was bad, you could easily be locked up only to find yourself working long, hard hours digging ditches with no pay and no release date. Get snagged in one of these situations, and you'd better plan your escape from the beginning.

56. Home heavily guarded: Be prepared to be met with aggressive behavior, a guard dog, or even a gun. This symbol indicated that occupants were usually home and would take great measures to protect themselves.

57. People do not give: Even your best approach won’t work here. Expect a rude response and a strict warning to keep away. This sign meant that even a glass of water on a hot day was out of the question.

58. Stay off of main street: Don’t be seen—stick to the side streets and alleys. This mark meant move on quickly or avoid this town altogether.

59. Mean dogs here: This warning was a sign that the dogs on this property were trained specifically to keep unwelcome or unknown people away. Both their bark and bite were good reasons to take the long way around.

60. Great place for a handout: Homeowners who were perplexed by the increased numbers of hobos knocking on their back door were sure to find a symbol like this close to their property. Hobos would share their wealth by letting others know that a person or home was a great place to get a meal or money.

Many famous people were hobos before they became successful actors, boxers, writers and more! Pictured here is author Carl Sandburg.

Many famous people were hobos before they became successful actors, boxers, writers and more! Pictured here is author Carl Sandburg.

Authors and Other Celebrities Who Were Once Hobos

Raul Hector Castro

Woody Guthrie

Robert Mitchum

Ralph Chaplin

Harry Kemp

George Orwell

W. H. Davies

Jack Kerouac

Carl Sandburg

Jack Dempsey

Louis L'amour

Seasick Steve

Loren Eiseley

Jack London

Philip Taft

The Language of the Lost

The history, culture, trials, tribulations, and successes of hobos are important to document and preserve for the education of future generations. Do you have any relatives who traveled by foot or rail for months on end in the 20th century? Please feel free to add your comments or contributions below.

Comments

Brad on August 24, 2019:

My father who passed would tell me stories of his mother in the 1950's living in Tyndal Ohio, population 200. Hobos would come buy and ask if there was any work to be done, my Dad said they didnt really want to do any, and she would make them a egg sandwhich on toast and coffee. He said there was a mark close by but never found it. She was a woman of God and cared for all.

Tony mo on March 18, 2019:

I grew up next to a train yard in the 70s. Down the road a few blocks was a hobo jungle. They had a camp set up in there. Cousins lived across the street from it. All grown ups told us to stay out if the woods. We did not listen. One day 2 hobos came to our house and parents gave them sandwiches and jugs of water. We used ride the trains for short distances. No more than a few miles. We also used to get into loaded train cars. Seen tvs, medical supplies, food, and of course automobiles. The only time we took anything was when we found a car full of blueberry muffin mixes. Back then they had cans of real blueberries in the boxes. We ate tons of them, even stashed some. Had a book back then that was about rich hobos. I guess some had money and some had a lot of money. Now there are only a few tracks left. Used to be 20 or more sets. Now a parking lot for U of L.

KasilofCohoe on January 07, 2019:

Utah Phillips, folksinger, activist, and story teller, has yet another variation of definition of Hobo, Tramp, bums, etc. Lots of songs and stories about trains, hobos, tramps. Beware his tall tales - outrageously funny, some heartbreakers. Another hobo who broke out. Was a little surprised not to see Jack London on the list. His short story taught me how. Colorado State University in Fort Collins, used to have a track right through campus, train speed restricted to maybe 5 MPH. Students hopped on to get to the movie theater at south end of town. Courageous (Stupid?) students road the 70 or so miles to Denver, but you had to beware the RR bulls by getting off soon enough, there. We all lived to tell the tale.

buyougirl on November 16, 2018:

Very interesting read...did not have any idea that this is was something hobo's done to survive.

Gigi on September 30, 2018:

Absolutely stunning article! Im not from US and had no idea about this culture. Thank you, Joel!

Jerry Malone on June 06, 2018:

I live in Batesville and have always loved to visit Calico Rock. I have an etching of the trout dock I purchased 35 years ago, hanging in my living room. Such a scenic wonderful short trip for me. Love the Apps and website.

Readmikenow on April 05, 2018:

Wow, this is certainly a world I knew nothing about. I found this article fascinating.

Lorelei Cohen from Canada on February 22, 2018:

Wow I knew they left marks but had no idea there were so many. Very interesting.

N on December 21, 2015:

This is a great article! But I still wonder what your sources were... Is it a piece of original research?

Mark Johann from New Zealand on January 27, 2015:

This is very interesting. I want to bookmark this one so I can read more again and again. I learn HOBO is exciting.

Kathryn Grace from San Francisco on January 27, 2015:

Thank you for sharing this. I have known about the signs since I was a child, but never understood their meaning. Thank you for sharing this fascinating aspect of the underground world.

Living in an area where we encounter homeless people every time we step outside our door, I have often wondered what all the symbols mean. It would be interesting to see how the codes have changed from then to now.

Lorelei Cohen from Canada on January 26, 2015:

This article really hit home. My dad's mom died giving birth to him and this resulting in a very abusive home with a resentful father and unfortunately the typical "wicked stepmother". I believe he was eleven when fearing for his life he ran away, first hiding in a neighbors barn, and then moving onward from there. He had some pretty rough times till he got a job leading horses in and out of a logging camp. Today I hear of so many people who due to new economic times live close to being homeless or who are. The saying, "There but for the grace of God" is so very true. Amazing article and I really did enjoy the read.

Catherine Giordano from Orlando Florida on January 25, 2015:

This is really good. Fascinating information about hobo signs. I'm voting up and sharing.

Phyllis Doyle Burns from High desert of Nevada. on January 25, 2015:

How interesting. I remember my parents and grandparents telling us that Hobos would kidnap kids and roll them up in their knapsack. There was a RR track right behind grandparents home and us kids would hide if we saw a Hobo. That was in the 1950s and there was still the occasional Hobo wandering through town.

I enjoyed reading about Hobo signs and symbols. Thanks, Joel.

Joel Diffendarfer (author) from Jonesville on January 25, 2015:

What's fascinating also, is that Hobo codes are still used today with a modern version that includes symbols like "open" wifi spots.

TurtleDog on January 25, 2015:

Really terrific post and it confirms something my Dad told me decades ago but he and I could never confirm. My father grew up as a young child in the depression and had a kind mother who was very endearing to Hobo's. They began to receive many visitors whom they never turned away. When asked they said her property was marked for being a good person. The interesting and intriguing part is that my father or his family were never able to confirm the mark and wondered if it were true. He always felt if it were true it was likely scrawled on the sidewalk or road pavement in a way that was hard to notice unless you know where to look. Anyway... thanks for the post and confirming these things aren't just lore. Appreciate it

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