A hobo is a term which is often applied to a migratory worker or homeless vagabond, often penniless. The term originated in the Western—probably Northwestern—United States during the last decade of the 19th century. Unlike ‘tramps’, who work only when they are forced to, and ‘bums’, who do not work at all, ‘hobos’ are workers who wander.
The origin of the term is unknown. Etymologist Anatoly Liberman says that the only details certain about its origin is that the word emerged in American English and was first noticed around 1890. Liberman points out that many folk etymologies fail to answer the question: “Why did the word become widely known in California (just there) by the early Nineties (just then)?” Author Todd DePastino has suggested that it may come from the term hoe-boy meaning “farmhand,” or a greeting such as Ho, boy!. Bill Bryson suggests in Made in America that it could either come from the railroad greeting, “Ho, beau!” or a syllabic abbreviation of “homeward bound”. H. L. Mencken, in his The American Language (4th ed., 1937), wrote:
Tramps and hobos are commonly lumped together, but in their own sight they are sharply differentiated. A hobo or bo is simply a migratory laborer; he may take some longish holidays, but soon or late he returns to work. A tramp never works if it can be avoided; he simply travels. Lower than either is the bum, who neither works nor travels, save when impelled to motion by the police.
A further possible source may be from the French noun “hobereau” meaning “a gentleman of the countryside” as defined in the TV5 Mondiale dictionary. The word may thus have been introduced by French-speaking migrants during the 18th and 19th centuries.
It is unclear exactly when hobos first appeared on the American railroading scene. With the end of the American Civil War in the mid 19th Century, many soldiers looking to return home took to hopping freight trains. Others looking for work on the American frontier followed railroads westward aboard freight trains in the late 19th Century.
In 1906, Professor Layal Shafee, after an exhaustive study, put the number of tramps in America at 500,000 (about 0.6% of the U.S. population). The article citing this figure, “What Tramps Cost Nation”, was published by The New York Telegraph in 1911 and estimated the number had surged to 700,000.
The population of hobos increased greatly during the Great Depression era of the 1930s. With no work and no prospects at home, many decided to travel for free via freight trains and try their luck elsewhere.
Life as a hobo was a dangerous one. In addition to the problems of being itinerant, poor, far from home and support, and the hostile attitude of many train crews, the railroads employed their own security staff, often nicknamed bulls, who had a reputation for being rough with trespassers. Also, riding on a freight train is a dangerous enterprise. The British poet W.H. Davies, author of The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp, lost a foot falling under the wheels while trying to jump a train. One could easily get trapped between cars, or freeze to death in bad weather. When freezer cars were loaded at an ice factory, any hobo inside was likely to be killed.
According to Ted Conover in Rolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails with America’s Hoboes (1984), as many as 20,000 people live the hobo life in North America today. Modern freight trains are much faster and harder to ride than in the 1930s, but can still be boarded in railyards.
National Hobo Convention
In 1900, the town fathers of Britt, Iowa invited Tourist Union #63 to bring their annual convention to town, and the National Hobo Convention has been held in August each year ever since. Hobos stay in the “Hobo Jungle” telling stories around campfires at night. A hobo king and queen are named each year and get to ride on special floats in the Hobo Day parade. Following the parade, mulligan stew is served to hundreds of people in the city park. Live entertainment, a carnival, and a flea market are also part of the festivities. They also win money for the parade to help them get food. The first and most important rule of the hobo code was ‘decide your own life’, which meant ‘do what you want to do’.
Lingo in use up to the 1940s
|Accommodation car||the caboose of a train|
|Angellina||young inexperienced child|
|Bad Road||a train line rendered useless by some hobo’s bad action|
|Banjo||(1) a small portable frying pan. (2) a short, “D” handled shovel|
|Barnacle||a person who sticks to one job a year or more|
|Beachcomber||a hobo who hangs around docks or seaports|
|Bindle stick||collection of belongings wrapped in cloth and tied around a stick|
|Bindlestiff||a hobo who carries a bindle.|
|Blowed-in-the-glass||a genuine, trustworthy individual|
|“‘Bo”||the common way one hobo referred to another: “I met that ‘Bo on the way to Bangor last spring”.|
|Boil Up||specifically, to boil one’s clothes to kill lice and their eggs. Generally, to get oneself as clean as possible|
|Bone polisher||a mean dog|
|Bone orchard||a graveyard|
|Bull||a railroad officer|
|Buck||a Catholic priest good for a dollar|
|C, H, and D||indicates an individual is Cold, Hungry, and Dry (thirsty)|
|California Blankets||newspapers, intended to be used for bedding|
|Calling In||using another’s campfire to warm up or cook|
|Cannonball||a fast train|
|Carrying the Banner||keeping in constant motion so as to avoid being picked up for loitering or to keep from freezing|
|Catch the Westbound||to die|
|Chuck a dummy||pretend to faint|
|Cover with the moon||sleep out in the open|
|Cow crate||a railroad stock car|
|Doggin’ it||traveling by bus, especially on the Greyhound bus line|
|Easy mark||a hobo sign or mark that identifies a person or place where one can get food and a place to stay overnight|
|Elevated||under the influence of drugs or alcohol|
|Flip||to board a moving train|
|Flop||a place to sleep, by extension: “Flophouse”, a cheap hotel.|
|Glad Rags||one’s best clothes|
|Grease the Track||to be run over by a train|
|Gump||a scrap of meat|
|Honey dipping||working with a shovel in the sewer|
|Hot||(1) a fugitive hobo. (2) a decent meal: “I could use three hots and a flop.”|
|Hot Shot||train with priority freight, stops rarely, goes faster; synonym for “Cannonball”|
|Jungle||an area off a railroad where hobos camp and congregate|
|Jungle Buzzard||a hobo or tramp who preys on their own|
|Knowledge bus||a school bus used for shelter|
|Main Drag||the busiest road in a town|
|Moniker / Monica||a nickname|
|Maeve||a child hobo usually a girl|
|Mulligan||a type of community stew, created by several hobos combining whatever food they have or can collect|
|Nickel note||five-dollar bill|
|On the Fly||jumping a moving train|
|Padding the hoof||to travel by foot|
|Possum Belly||to ride on the roof of a passenger car. One must lie flat, on his/her stomach, to not be blown off|
|Pullman||a railroad sleeper car. Most were made by George Pullman company.|
|Punk||any young kid|
|Reefer||a compression of “refrigerator car”.|
|Road kid||a young hobo who apprentices himself to an older hobo in order to learn the ways of the road|
|Road stake||the small amount of money a hobo may have in case of an emergency|
|Rum dum||a drunkard|
|Sky pilot||a preacher or minister|
|Soup bowl||a place to get soup, bread and drinks|
|Snipes||cigarette butts “sniped” (e.g. in ashtrays)|
|Spear biscuits||looking for food in garbage cans|
|Stemming||panhandling or mooching along the streets|
|Tokay Blanket||drinking alcohol to stay warm|
|Yegg||a traveling professional thief, or burglar|
Many hobo terms have become part of common language, such as “Big House”, “glad rags”, “main drag”, and others.
Hobo (sign) code
To cope with the difficulty of hobo life, hobos developed a system of symbols, or a code. Hobos would write this code with chalk or coal to provide directions, information, and warnings to other hobos. Some signs included “turn right here”, “beware of hostile railroad police”, “dangerous dog”, “food available here”, and so on. For instance:
- A cross signifies “angel food,” that is, food served to the hobos after a sermon.
- A triangle with hands signifies that the homeowner has a gun.
- A horizontal zigzag signifies a barking dog.
- A square missing its top line signifies it is safe to camp in that location.
- A top hat and a triangle signify wealth.
- A spearhead signifies a warning to defend oneself.
- A circle with two parallel arrows means to get out fast, as hobos are not welcome in the area.
- Two interlocked humans signify handcuffs. (i.e. hobos are hauled off to jail).
- A Caduceus symbol signifies the house has a medical doctor living in it.
- A cross with a smiley face in one of the corners means the doctor at this office will treat hobos for free.
- A cat signifies that a kind lady lives here.
- A wavy line (signifying water) above an X means fresh water and a campsite.
- Three diagonal lines mean it’s not a safe place.
- A square with a slanted roof (signifying a house) with an X through it means that the house has already been “burned” or “tricked” by another hobo and is not a trusting house.
- Two shovels, signifying work was available (Shovels, because most hobos did manual labor).
Another version of the Hobo Code exists as a display in the Steamtown National Historic Site at Scranton, Pennsylvania, operated by the National Park Service.
Hobo (ethical) code
An ethical code was created by Tourist Union #63 during its 1889 National Hobo Convention in St. Louis Missouri. This code was voted upon as a concrete set of laws to govern the Nation-wide Hobo Body; it reads this way:
- Decide your own life, don’t let another person run or rule you.
- When in town, always respect the local law and officials, and try to be a gentleman at all times.
- Don’t take advantage of someone who is in a vulnerable situation, locals or other hobos.
- Always try to find work, even if temporary, and always seek out jobs nobody wants. By doing so you not only help a business along, but ensure employment should you return to that town again.
- When no employment is available, make your own work by using your added talents at crafts.
- Do not allow yourself to become a stupid drunk and set a bad example for locals’ treatment of other hobos.
- When jungling in town, respect handouts, do not wear them out, another hobo will be coming along who will need them as bad, if not worse than you.
- Always respect nature, do not leave garbage where you are jungling.
- If in a community jungle, always pitch in and help.
- Try to stay clean, and boil up wherever possible.
- When traveling, ride your train respectfully, take no personal chances, cause no problems with the operating crew or host railroad, act like an extra crew member.
- Do not cause problems in a train yard, another hobo will be coming along who will need passage through that yard.
- Do not allow other hobos to molest children, expose all molesters to authorities, they are the worst garbage to infest any society.
- Help all runaway children, and try to induce them to return home.
- Help your fellow hobos whenever and wherever needed, you may need their help someday.
- If present at a hobo court and you have testimony, give it. Whether for or against the accused, your voice counts!