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All Things Hobo—Signs and Symbols

Updated on February 3, 2017

Hobo Joe went this way

If you saw this carved or scrawled along the trail, you would know that "Joe" went this way
If you saw this carved or scrawled along the trail, you would know that "Joe" went this way | Source

Signs of the times

The early 1900s were a time of displacement of over 500,000 people in the U.S. Many became Hobos and became a migrant society seeking work as they criss-crossed the country. The most common routes followed the railway lines and it was often a dangerous and meager lifestyle. Hobos communicated to one another by carving or drawing symbols on trees, post, bridges, and even houses to both offer directional guidance and warnings of what lay ahead. What follows are 60 of the most common along with the message behind them.

Hobo Symbols 1 - 20

Source

500 miles

Hobos would walk miles between towns, sometimes hitching a ride on the rails, always looking for sustainable work.
Hobos would walk miles between towns, sometimes hitching a ride on the rails, always looking for sustainable work. | Source

Hobo 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 the welcoming “mothering” type of individuals who found 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 of this man would be met with a show of hostility. Move quickly, move on.
  3. Jail has cooties. Sometimes by choice hobos would allow themselves to be put in situations that would earn them jail time in the hopes of getting out of foul weather or for a meal or two. This symbol warned that the town’s jail was dirty and bug ridden. Not a good lodging choice.
  4. Okay to sleep in barn. There were many variations of this symbol but should a hobo discover one, they would know that either by sneaking or asking permission, the barn or hayloft was a good place to sleep or escape foul weather.
  5. Beware thieves about. Keep your two eyes on “his” ten fingers. Finding this sign at a hobo camp or a meeting spot indicated that theft was suspected among them. Keep any of your belongings close to you 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 your next destination. Finding a safe place to camp undisturbed that had good clean water nearby and had plenty of firewood made the perfect camp. 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 he stayed alert for aggressive behavior amongst other hobos or in areas that frowned upon them. Any sign of cowardness was an indicator that you were easily overcome and either robbed or abused.
  8. Crooked man lives here. Hobos sometimes found that a homeowner or a business would invite them to work or feed them but after serving, would be quickly run away with no payment of any kind. Observance of a man who was abusive to his children or witnessing a deceptive behavior would also be disserving of this symbol being posted near the location to warn others.
  9. Tell a pitiful story. Experienced hobos with a bit of acting skills could easily manipulate potential marks by telling a hard luck story or assuming a pitiful look. This worked especially well for child, female, and teen hobos.
  10. Police are hostile. Many times police and town officials were outwardly and physically aggressive towards any hobo regardless of his actions. In some cases this was purposefully done to arrest and put the hobo to work for free.

Be warned, be informed

Source

11. Get bread here: Hobos became very good misers and learned to making much out of little. Even the less fortunate of homes generally could spare a slice of stale bread or leftover rolls. If a bread symbol could be found, the chance of assembling a meal of simple ingredients was a chance of a full belly

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

13. Get cursed out here: Hobos were regarded in some towns as human trash and took pleasure in demeaning and verbally insulting any hobo who happened by their way. The law would take measures against any hobo who retaliated in any way.

14. Wet town, alcohol here: This symbol shows an open mug which means that this town serves alcohol. This same symbol without showing the top, would mean that this town is a “dry” town.

15. Go around this town: The bad experience of others was communicated through the display of this symbol. It meant to take the long way around or trouble was sure to happen.

16. Go this way: This was a common directional sign that indicated the right direction to go when faced with a cross road or intersection. Depending on the direction of the line, other hobos could save time and avoid danger.

17. Dogs in garden: To keep would-be hobo garden robbers from plucking the vegetables from the garden plot, dogs would be staked or left free to roam within its boundaries. Hobos who experienced such an unpleasant surprise would warn others who may have their eye on the ingredients for their evening’s meal.

18. Judge lives here: Trying to beg or even disturbing the home of a judge or other law official was a good way to get thrown in jail quickly. Stay away if you see this sign.

19. Kind gentleman lives here: The top hat represents kind or rich gentleman, the triangle represents a home. Together they mean kind or rich gentleman or family lives here.

20. I went this way: If two hobos agreed to meet up down the road, the hobo who got there first would leave a message symbol that showed his moniker (his road name), and that he would be waiting in the next closest town.

Hobo symbols: 21 - 40

Source

Hobo symbols meanings 21 - 40

21. Jail is Okay: As a hobo, sooner or later going to jail was inevitable. There were occasions, however, that 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, get arrested, and most of all, find a jail that was clean and not a danger in itself.

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

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

24. Railroad men look the other way: Rail workers and railroad police could be some of the cruelest and roughest of the people who hobos would run into. There were however sections of rail that rail police didn’t care and ignored hobos or would 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. Sanitary conditions and poor waste disposal into streams and other bodies of water were poorly regulated and this symbol gave warning to all.

27. Money for work here: Good place to work for money. These jobs generally consisted of hard work with low pay, but there were opportunities that afforded a strong steady hobo to possibly continue a longer term better paying job. This symbol also gave a heads up to 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 trumped into an unpaid work crew.

29. Easy marks: This symbol boasted of the ease of successful gleanings from a town or group of individuals. Although a “mark” was sometimes assoiated with the tricking well meaning people, it did express the attitude of a comfortable place to be.

30. I ate: Good news for a hobo entering an unfamiliar town. This symbol encouraged following hobos that their next meal may be close.

Riding the rods

Hobos traveled great distances only inches from danger
Hobos traveled great distances only inches from danger | Source

31. Money here: Working for food kept the belly full but there was also a need for money for other 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 for a hobo who was trying to break free.

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

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

34. Cowards, will pay to get rid of you: Hobos had a tendency to cause fear in some households or places that had little or no protection. These people would gladly offer food or money rather than deal with the confrontation of a hobo.

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 though for a better place.

36. Good place to catch train: A big part of a hobos travels revolved around the rails. This symbol provided the information especially valuable to less experienced hobos as to where to safely “hop” a ride.

37. Good place to sleep: This sign would guide the weary hobo in finding shelter that provided an element of protection or warmth. A barn, a bridge covering, or abandoned buildings were prime places.

38. Keep quiet baby here: One thing that most hobos agreed upon was the protection and repect of young families. This symbol would remind hobos of their code and instruct those who saw this symbol to be quiet and not to disturb them.

39. Policeman lives here: This sign saved many hobos from making the mistake of knocking on the door of a policeman or other law officer and end up getting thrown in jail, or worse, a chain gain 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 symbol that showed his moniker (his road name), and that he would be waiting in the next closest town.

Hobo symbols 41 - 60

Source

3 Things for Hobo Survival

If you were starting out as a hobo and could only have 3 things, what would you choose?

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Hobo symbol meanings: 41 - 60

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

42. Hold your tongue: In some towns, a hobo would generally be ignored unless he brought notice to himself by verbally responding to rude comments. If you came across this sign, it told you 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 livestock or animals that would announce your presence.

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

45. Police woman lives here: Hobos found the best “marks” were usually woman. There were times, however, that knocking on the door of a police woman would end up back firing. Stay away from homes around a home that pointed to 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 a good symbol could be “corrected” if the message had changed.

47. Telephone here: As rare as they were, if an event occurred that required calling “back home” or a phone call could lead to an opportunity, it was good to know where they were located.

48. Dry town: This symbol took the shape of an upside down cup and said that this town did not sell or allow alcohol. Do try to buy it or even display it if you had it.

49. Police will lock you up: Avoid places where you see this sign. For no reason at all, police will arrest you and put you in jail to either keep favor with townspeople or to add you to their own private free labor work force.

50. Church or religious people: This symbol could be both bad and good. A compassionate group of religious people would be a welcome find even if it meant being subject to a harsh sermon or message. On the other hand, it could become a hardship for strict pious congregations who viewed hobos as the result of sin.

Hobo symbol meanings: 51 - 60

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 were not going to assist a hobo in the event of a confrontation.

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

53. Poor people live here: This symbol gained a level of respect from hobos. They, more than anyone else understood the hardship of life and would not bother homes known to be struggling.

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

55. Workhouse jail: Do your business and leave as quickly as possible. If your timing is bad, you could easily be locked up only to find your self working long hard hours digging ditches with no pay and no length of stay. Get snagged in one of these situations and you better plan your escape from the beginning.

56. Home heavily guarded: Be prepared to be met with aggressive behavior or a guard dog, or gun. Occupants are usually home and have taken 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. Even a glass of water on a hot day is out of the question.

58. Stay off of main street: Don’t be seen, stick to the side streets and alleys. Move on quickly or avoid this town all together.

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 a good reason 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 this was a great source for a meal or money.

Famous Hobos

Many famous people have histories of going from Hobo to successful actors, boxers, writers and more!
Many famous people have histories of going from Hobo to successful actors, boxers, writers and more! | Source

Hobos that broke free

  • Raul Hector Castro
  • Ralph Chaplin
  • W. H. Davies
  • Jack Dempsey
  • Loren Eiseley
  • Woody Guthrie
  • Harry Kemp
  • Jack Kerouac
  • Louis L'amour
  • Jack London
  • Robert Mitchum
  • George Orwell
  • Carl Sandburg
  • Seasick Steve
  • Philip Taft

Feel free to contribute or comment

The history and culture of the trials, tribulations, and successes of hobos is important to document and preserve for the education of future generations. Please feel free to add your comments or contributions below.

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    • profile image

      23 months ago

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

    • Mark Johann profile image

      Mark Johann 2 years ago from Italy

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

    • ecogranny profile image

      Kathryn Grace 2 years ago from San Francisco

      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.

    • Lady Lorelei profile image

      Lorelei Cohen 2 years ago from Canada

      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.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

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

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 2 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      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 profile image
      Author

      Joel Diffendarfer 2 years ago from Ft Collins, Colorado

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

    • TurtleDog profile image

      TurtleDog 2 years ago

      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