The Hobo Code: An Introduction to the Hieroglyphic Language of Early 1900s Train-Hoppers

Many of us now use the word hobo to refer to any home­less indi­vid­ual, but back in the Amer­i­ca of the late 19th and ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry, to be a hobo meant some­thing more. It meant, specif­i­cal­ly, to count your­self as part of a robust cul­ture of itin­er­ant labor­ers who criss-crossed the coun­try by hitch­ing ille­gal rides on freight trains. Liv­ing such a lifestyle on the mar­gins of soci­ety demand­ed the mas­tery of cer­tain tech­niques as well as a body of secret knowl­edge, an aspect of the hey­day of hobodom sym­bol­ized in the “hobo code,” a spe­cial hiero­glyph­ic lan­guage explained in the Vox video above.

“Wan­der­ing from place to place and per­form­ing odd jobs in exchange for food and mon­ey, hobos were met with both open arms and firearms,” writes Antique Archae­ol­o­gy’s Sarah Buck­holtz. “From ille­gal­ly jump­ing trains to steal­ing scraps from a farm­ers mar­ket, the hobo com­mu­ni­ty need­ed to cre­ate a secret lan­guage to warn and wel­come fel­low hobos that were either new to town or just pass­ing through.”

The code, writ­ten on brick walls, bases of water tow­ers, or any oth­er sur­face that did­n’t move, “assigned cir­cles and arrows for gen­er­al direc­tions like, where to find a meal or the best place to camp. Hash­tags sig­naled dan­ger ahead, like bad water or an inhos­pitable town.”

Hash­tags sounds a bit Mil­len­ni­al for hobo cul­ture, but on some lev­el the term does make sense. Some of the abstract­ed sym­bols of the hobo code look a bit more like emo­ji: a loco­mo­tive mean­ing “good place to catch a train,” a build­ing with a barred door mean­ing “this is a well-guard­ed house,” a cat mean­ing “a kind lady lives here.” But how much use did the hobo code actu­al­ly see? “The prob­lem is, all this infor­ma­tion came from hobos, a group that took pride in their elu­sive­ness and embell­ished sto­ry­telling,” says the Vox video’s nar­ra­tor. “The truth is, there real­ly isn’t any evi­dence that these signs were as wide­ly used as the lit­er­a­ture sug­gests.”

“Hobos used their mythol­o­gy as a kind of cov­er,” says hobo his­to­ri­an Bill Daniel. “The tall tales, the draw­ings, even the books” — espe­cial­ly vol­umes penned by “A‑No.1,” the most famous hobo of them all — “were ways to project an image of them­selves that both blew them up, but also kept them hid­den.” Yet hobo ways, which encom­passed even an eth­i­cal code that we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture, have their descen­dants. Take, for instance, the hobo prac­tice of writ­ing their nick­names, or “monikers,” on trains and else­where to show the world where they’d been and where they were head­ed. The line to mod­ern urban graf­fi­ti almost draws itself, espe­cial­ly in the prac­tice of sub­way-car “bomb­ing” in 1970s and 80s New York. The hobo has gone, but the char­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly hardy hobo spir­it finds a way to live on.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Hobo Eth­i­cal Code of 1889: 15 Rules for Liv­ing a Self-Reliant, Hon­est & Com­pas­sion­ate Life

How to Write in Cuneiform, the Old­est Writ­ing Sys­tem in the World: A Short, Charm­ing Intro­duc­tion

You Could Soon Be Able to Text with 2,000 Ancient Egypt­ian Hiero­glyphs

Google Puts Online 10,000 Works of Street Art from Across the Globe

‘Boom Boom’ and ‘Hobo Blues’: Great Per­for­mances by John Lee Hook­er

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (2) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (2)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.