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What is the Hobo Code?

Have you ever heard of the hobo code? What might look like strange hieroglyphics to an outsider was an essential form of communication that hobos understood.

This somewhat secret language helped them navigate the different circumstances they might face when moving from town to town. 

A weary traveler would welcome a hot meal after a long day’s journey and a safe, comfortable place to camp. But what resources did a hobo have to find these basic necessities? And what areas of town should they absolutely avoid?

These are the kinds of things that the hobo code could help with. Having a trustworthy grapevine for information might even be a lifesaver, or at least keep them out of jail.

Climb aboard as we look into what these cryptic symbols mean and find out whether they’re still in use today. Let’s go!

What is the Hobo Code?

To explain the hobo code, a little background is in order. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, a shortage of jobs prompted many people to move around looking for work. Hopping a freight train was a free and fast way to get from one place to another. Many of those who rode the rails looked out for one another, too. 

One way was by using graffiti as a sly means of communication. Using chalk or a piece of coal, they would scrawl simple messages on signposts, under bridges, and on sidewalks. T

he basic drawings could serve as warnings or helpful hints about the community.

Why Are Hobos Called Hobos? 

They had other names, such as tramps or vagabonds, but the term hobo is probably the one that most endures. There’s quite a bit of mystery about the term’s origin.

Some say hobo is short for “homeless bohemian,” but that’s just one of several theories. Another is that, because many of them were farmworkers, it evolved from “hoe boy.”

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Man sleeping on park bench
The hobo code uses graffiti to communicate messages.

Is the Hobo Code Still Used? 

Hobos were once pretty common, but you don’t see them too often these days. As a result, the hobo code is mostly a thing of the past.

We must say, too, that not everyone believes that the hobo code was a widespread practice. While hobos certainly communicated with one another, they argue, it was more likely mostly through word of mouth.

Why Do Hobos Use Symbols? 

The idea behind the hobo code is that the messages are intended for some people. In other words, If you know, you know. The markings were specific enough to convey a message but vague enough to not attract much attention.

That’s because not everyone was on board with the hobo lifestyle. Many looked down on it because it was nothing more than freeloading to them.

How Did Hobos Mark Houses? 

The hobos’ markings, such as those on sidewalks in front of houses, help to describe the lay of the land. They were an effort to recommend places that were welcoming while warning of areas to avoid. For instance, a drawing of a shovel indicated that work was available.

The image of a cat meant that a kindhearted woman lived there. A crisscross pattern, representing the bars of a cell, suggested a heavy police presence. A simple cross gave the hopeful promise of a church offering meals or other charity.

Some historians believe they also left markings showing when they were there and where they were headed next. They may have directed these messages specifically to friends or associates who were also passing through.

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Are There Still Railroad Hobos? 

Like the hobo code itself, riding the rails has almost faded into obscurity. There are still some people who stow away on trains, but not nearly as many as there used to be.

It can be extremely dangerous, of course, and there are much stricter security measures nowadays. These days, train-hopping is probably more in the name of thrill-seeking adventure rather than a practical means of travel.

Is Being a Hobo Illegal? 

A popular theme with hobo code symbols was how to stay arm’s length from the law. After all, it was illegal to trespass on a train, and some towns enforced vagrancy very aggressively. So they had to constantly try to avoid police on and off the rails.

They also had to be careful about where they set up camp. Otherwise, they might wind up in what they called the hoosegow. This is why having their own code was so important. 

For the most part, they weren’t just out joyriding. Many of them were poor, itinerant workers going from place to place searching for an honest day’s work. They were all part of an underground community, so their hobo code was their way of looking out for one another.

Did you know about the hobo code? Tell us in the comments!

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  1. Angelo says:

    Yes I knew about this! The famous artist Basquiat used these codes in his neoexpressionist paintings.

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