Hobo Codes & Symbols
Definition of a Hobo
During the great depression people that rode the trains between migrant jobs came to be called “Hobos“. In their travels, they learned to leave notes for each other, giving information on the best places to camp or find a meal, or dangers that lay ahead. This unique Code was known to the brotherhood of freight train riders and used by all. To this day you will find some of these codes still in use.
The signs were typically drawn on utility poles using charcoal or with some other temporary writing material that would wash out.
History of Hobo Symbols and Codes
It’s not clear when hobos first appeared on the American railroading scene. With the end of the Civil War in the 1860’s, many veterans returning home began hopping freight trains. Others looking for work on the American frontier followed the railways west. In 1906 a study conducted by Professor Layal Shafee estimated the tramps or Hobo’s in the United States to be about 500,000 (about 0.6% of the U.S. population). Later, in 1911, he published an article titled, “What Tramps Cost Nation” in the The New York Telegraph estimating that number had surged to 700,000.
Life as a hobo was dangerous. In addition to the problems of being itinerant and poor they frequently faced hostility from railroad security and even locals in the cities they passed through. Because of this they started using codes or symbols that could be used to communicate to the travelers that would come after them.
Many of the codes had to do with safety letting others know if a campsite was safe or if the drinking water was good. They also had codes to let you know if the people n the town were helpful or generous and whether the police were friendly or not. Today many of the original Hobo Symbols are still in use today. Some, like the symbols for safe camp and safe company, are being printed on tee shirts and sold online.