Ask anyone who lived during the Great Depression, and they’ll share the toll it took on the health and heart. The sudden halt of the economy, which struck on October 19, 1929, — forever known as Black Monday, when the Dow Jones fell 22.6% in one day — was one of the worst, longest-lasting economic devastations in American history. Coupled with a major drought and no farming strategy to combat it, millions of people’s livelihoods, homes, and crops literally disintegrated into dust, and there was no way of telling when it would end or what would be left when it did.

The quivering financial state of the country left many folks with no choice but to abandon their homes in hopes that new possibilities awaited somewhere new. With their families in mind, these nomadic, transient workers and riders of the rails, became known as “hobos”. Though often mistaken for “bums” who had given up and were living on hand-outs, hobos were a different breed: itinerant workers looking for a chance to make an honest dollar, wherever they could find work.

Photo courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration
Photo courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration

Wandering from place to place and performing odd jobs in exchange for food and money, hobos were met with both open arms and firearms. (People like Al Capone even opened a soup kitchen that served free coffee and donuts to the employed!) 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. It was called the Hobo Code.

This brilliant, hieroglyphic-like language appeared random enough for busy people to ignore, but perfectly distinctive for hobos to translate. The code 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.

Hobo code for "Nice lady lives here, religious talk will get your food, and you can sleep in the loft here."
Hobo code for “Nice lady lives here, religious talk will get your food, and you can sleep in the loft here.”

It wasn’t just grown men and woman out learning the code. With funding cut, schools were out of session and children were restless. As a way to help their families escape a life of poverty, many 15 and 16-year-olds began adopting the odd job lifestyle. It’s estimated that there were 250,000 teenage hobos zigzagging the rails in America from the late ’20s to early ’40s.

hobo code
From the FSA-OWI Collection at the Library of Congress Photo by Dorothea Lange

Even though the Hobe Code may have diminished in 1941, we like to think the nomadic worker’s travel code still exists today. Think about all the blogs, reviews, and guides we look at before heading out on a new adventure. They’re the direct descendants of the language invented by those intrepid travelers who spent bleak times wandering America in search of an honest day’s work, a hot meal and safe place to sleep. It’s human nature to help others and add elements of safely when traveling to new places. It’s all about keeping to the code.

hobo code
Photo courtesy of Golan Levin

 

Share the most helpful advice you received from a helpful stranger on your travels in the comments below.

 

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69 Comments

69 thoughts on “The Hobo Code: The Secret Language of America’s Working Class”

  1. Kat

    When I hitched from the midwest to Cali … a driver told me hop an 18 wheeler to get the longest distance, the quickest. I’d never even been to a truckstop before. But it worked. I must have a guardian angel watching over me because I got there safe and sound and nobody tried anything “funny.” It’s a little like caving in a spot so tight you cant move forward unless you corkscrew yourself through the tight spot.
    I’m glad to say I did it and made it out alive but I don’t feel the need to repeat the experience.

  2. Charles Boyer

    A No. 1 was a hobo in the late 1800s and early 1900s He claimed to have traveled over 500,000 miles for a little over $7. His real name was Leon Ray Livingston and liked to call Cambridge Springs Pa his home. He wrote several books of his travels and was trying to dissuade youngsters from trying the lifestyle. He spent some time riding the rails with Jack London author of White Fang and many more books. Mr London also wrote a book on his hobo days called “The Road” I’ve read several of A No. 1’s books and they are very interesting and checking online originals of his books sell for upwards and over $200. I have mine on my Nook reader and downloaded them off of Barnes and Nobel.

  3. Robert Mills

    I just love hearing this stuff. It’s the history of the American People. I would love to see a class taught in schools that really shows what the average person went through during all of the history of the United States of America.

  4. janice mc court redfearn

    i had an uncle that was a true hobo. From the hills of West Virginia, he served his country and came home to the poverty of the beautiful Appalachian hills. He chose the life and loved every mile and smile along the way. God Bless my Hobo, Denzel McCourt.

  5. Debbie Anderson

    My father lived in Weiser, Idaho. Being around 7 years old when hobos left the trains in search of work in Weiser, he used to tell me about his mother feeding them. They lived close to the train tracks, had a farm, and the hobos would help her with her farm chores. They never wanted a free meal.

  6. Brisson Ron

    I love the show even collect Harley’s myself but I think you apparel is priced a bit high not everyone has a lot of cash or disable. Just saying. Love show

  7. Dale A Keller

    Hobo’s should have respect for their efforts to overcome the traumatic downturn during the 1930’s depression. Here, Antique Archaeology has provided a positive article about the Hobo population. They didn’t live for handouts (charity was terrific if they received help). They lived to work and traveled like no one else to make a living overcoming the odds before them – survive, make money to feed themselves and their families who were often left behind for years at a time.

    I raise a glass of praise for them! WILL travel in grueling conditions to work. They weren’t quitters, they were survivalists in the hobo jungle. They did what had to be done!

    Someday I will share a story about my best friend and me riding 4 freight trains in a week about 40 years ago. We wanted to feel the “attraction” and the dangers the hobo community constantly faced. Nearly every day they were in the trenches. Our experience was short term, dangerous, illegal and never should be done today.

    My Best Regards and Compliments to the best shows on earth! You passionately highlight the positive perspective of the hobo reality so modern people can understand why stories about hobos, Native Americans, Eskimos, and countless other groups are really miraculous!

  8. Tim Barr

    When I was 15 my dad and I were in downtown Tucson AZ. We met a man in a suit who said he was the King of the Hobos. He was a real gentleman and not what I expected of a Hobo. He did not ask for anything but a little good fellowship and conversation. I remember the King after 60 years and still think he was great person.

    1. Lawrence Skrdla

      Steam train maury graham from toledo ohio was the king of the hobos for many years. He passed a few years ago. A very kindly gentlrman with long white beard and walking cane.

  9. LeAnn

    This is a great history. I love the idea that these folks were down but never considered throwing in the towel. Like many I have faced some rough times in my life but I never saw my situation as hopeless. I kept moving and trying and of course, things worked out. Maybe I too, have a hobo spirit!!!??
    Peace and Blessings, LeAnn

  10. Lynda Criswell

    Helpful Stranger Story:
    I have traveled a lot, and like to see a city by walking. When I was in British Victoria, a bus ride and a wandering walk took me far from familiar territory, into a quaint beautiful neighborhood. This was before cell phones were available. I was lost – a continent away from my home in Alabama.

    A serious jogger passed me, then came back, still jogging in place, to see if he could help. I told him I was staying at the hotel by the water, and if he could point me in the right direction, I would appreciate it!

    Instead, he accompanied me there! Walking, joggin in place, and running ahead and back to keep up his pace, he took me close enough that I could see the road I should take from there, then he disappeared, continuing his run.

    I did not even get to thank him!

  11. Steven Cameron

    Great story on the Hobo Code, I remember as a child my Grandfather telling me stories of him and brother riding the rails as young men searching for any work they could find be it a meal or a few coins to put in there pockets, times were tough back then and my Grandpa told me stories about how he and his Brother would be riding the rails with other Hobos and how the would share what little food that they had among them to make some type of meal so that everyone had something to eat it comes as no surprise to me that many of the young men and women who lived thru the Great Depression would years later during World War 2 become Americas Greatest Generation great story it brought back some golden moments for me of stories shared with me as a child Thanks

  12. SPEED

    I went across the USA by Rail when I was 17. I left from Oakland CA and went all the way to Tampa FL. I had a few stops along the way, the longest in Atlanta GA. They (POLICE) were very unfriendly there. I encountered those symbols along the rails many times especially in the South. Never knew what most of them ment but I tagged along with a “PRO” by the name of STOGIE, and he showed me the the how to read the code. This was a very learning experience for me and the memories have always stayed with me.

      1. SPEED

        I was able to locate STOGIE in Fontana CA. He was working for a Carnival, Carnival Time Shows, out of Lakeville CA. He had not changed very much. Loe and behold he even remembered me! We shared a lot of laughs and stories. I have learned that he has passed away and the Carnival owner, Larry Davis had him inturned in Forest Lawn. I also learned that Larry has also passed away. Time passes on and so do we all.

  13. Caesar J. Warrick

    My Great Grandpa Joe Telesco ran a Hobo’s Rest in Portchester NY. With his own money he served up meals and Apple Cider in an old stable that was located behind the apt house that he owned at 110 Purdy Ave. It is told that Hobo’s a thousand miles away knew they could get a touch at Papa Joe’s. in fact he became so endeared to these men that they began calling him:” The Saint Of The Hobo’s”. There’s a lot more to the story of Papa Joe but I can only lay a teaser here. Caesar J. Warrick

  14. Bill Clark

    Mike. Couple things about hobos. 1) There are very collectible Buffalo nickels that hobos carved. Some were very good. Some are very valuable. Couple $1000 each. Some only $100 or so. Some new people are carving today. The carved nickels were used to pay for food/lodging. 2). You ever try to hop s train? Harder than it looks for sure. I lived in Wyoming when I was a kid. About 14-15 years old. My buddy and I were gonna hop a freight and go to Mexico. We waited for the train to hit the grade. It was in retrospect going about 5mph. But running on the cinders with one foot higher than the other slows you down. I got drug about 20 feet and thought about the bridge ahead and the height of the drop and let go. My buddy never even caught the handle. We thought we were all that. That was 1960 or ’61.

  15. Armand83

    Tous article is vert interresting. I’ve heard about the hobo but i didn’t know that they’ve hot à particular language.

    Excuse my english i’m french.

  16. Marvin King

    I love the story about the Hobo life, when I was a child we lived in an old dining car that was moved about 500 feet off the track and put on blocks. I remember as a child hanging out by the tracks that went under the bridges through our town and seeing the freight train riders hopping on and off before the terminal so they did not get in trouble. We had a skid row in out town or Aurora, IL back in the 50’s into the early 60’s. where you could walk through and see those that have fallen on hard times, living in shacks, many turned to alcohol to take their mind to a better place. Later in life I purchased my 1st house and at the closing the elder couple I bought it from told me how they lived on skid row and actually built the tiny 600 square foot house from the lumber they gathered when skid row was torn down. He brought himself out of poverty, he hand dug the basement and lived in it for a few years as their underground home while he gathered the lumber to build the house I purchased. I love to read how those before us forged the path we sometimes expect is stead of respect.
    These are the true stories of the American people.
    And I am proud to be living in this great county.

    Marvin King
    Elburn IL

  17. Dutch Bentzinger

    In the 50’s, a man would show up at our front door asking for food every now and then. Never the same guy, always a different one. The Frisco yard was a couple miles to the west and mom figured there was some code that marked our house as a place to get a meal. She kept a special plate and glass and would give them a glass of milk, a sandwich and a piece of fruit, and another piece of fruit for the road. She said they were never threatening or rude. We kids watched them eat from inside the storm door. She said they were down on their luck.

  18. christina shaffer

    When I was a child (40’s and 50’s) there was a hobo or hobos who would knock at our door for a handout.
    My Mom was always a most caring, loving generous woman and would make him/them a sandwich and
    some milk. I know the same man stopped at least several times and always got a meal. That made a
    lasting impression on me; especially the kindness of my Mom. I grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

  19. Diana Bartelds

    My Mom said hobos used to stop at their house when she was growing up in Perry, IA, in the ’20-’40s. She said they’d mark the street or sidewalk in front of the house & I always wondered what those marks looked like. Grandpa drilled wells for the Milwaukee Rd. and sometimes Grandma lived with him in a boxcar, so maybe she felt a sort of connection with hobos. Mom said they could do some work for Grandma & she’d feed them or give them food.

  20. Kathi Martin

    My mother always told us kids my grandfather was a hobo. She had his knife had many tools on it and a spoon and fork. My mother has passed away but my older brother still treasures the only thing we have of him, the “hobo knife”.

  21. Tracy Bauske

    Hi Mike , My dream is to meet you! I met a really good friend of yours. HIPPIE TOM AT HIS HOUSE AND I HAVE THE REAL THING. WORLD WAR 2 POSTERS. IF YOU ARE INTERESTED LET ME KNOW. Thank you very much. Tracy Bauske 847- 721- 0628 . Bausket@yahoo.com.

  22. Stacy Dodson

    My GMA told me that her parents would hang sacks of food out back by the tracks for the hobos to grab as the trains rolled by.

  23. Steve Rodgerson

    Thanks for the time you spent to gleen this info. My Grandfather was a post master and had a store in south east Missouri, with the Great Depression, he couldn’t say no to his friends, wanting food. So he went broke and became a HOBO coming to California to find a job to support hIs family. On his way to California he had to learn the hobo code to stay alive. I am very lucky to have the opportunity to hear his stories. Great

  24. Joe Reichert

    I lived in a small town in Southern Illinois and we were definitely marked. As otthers have said all were honest and good men. Very great full for any help.

    My grand mother had a maid and had her main meal at noone. They soon learned that and, while not invited in, they ate well on the back porch.

  25. John Blaine

    We visited the AA store and shopped for t shirts. Very nice ones 2 $25.00 or more. I would have felt better at a lower price.
    After I closed the purchase I thought: I should have offered a lower price and negotiated – dah!

  26. Simplicity

    My clown character is a hobo and Everything on my costume is related to the history of the hobo and I lecture at depot museums about their history. Some of the museums are actually trains that have “hobo” events in which I get to ride and go from car to car relaying this history. My motto is ” proudly keeping the history of the hobo alive.”

  27. christina shaffer

    I visited your Iowa stores in May this year. I fell in love with your $30 pillow with Less people, more roads and an old bus. I live on a fixed income and couldn’t afford it. Are you able to sell me one for less? I live in Colorado now, so it would have to me mailed. What can you do for me? Thanks

  28. Ava

    In 1918, my Dad’s family moved to Southern Arizona in a covered wagon. For about 25 years they worked throughout the depression as migrant farm workers, traveling the Southwest following crops but keeping Phoenix as their home base. My Dad, born in 1935, would hop a train to go fishing at Lake Pleasant, north of Phoenix. Eventually the conductors became used to seeing him and would stop the train to pick him up and drop him off. They were a family of 12, with 10 kids.

  29. KATHY

    Ummmmmm…the day the economy collapsed was October 29, 1929, forever known as Black Tuesday. ( October 19th of that year was actually a Saturday.)

  30. Karen

    Reminds me of the Disney movie, “The Journey of Natty Gann”. I highly recommend watching it. A young girl searching for her father riding trains.

    My husband and I love your shows, very addicting. Great escape!

  31. Deano

    Railfan and am interested in all RR items as well as the people on them now and then. I have N&W blood in me. What was the movie called about a hobo hopping trains and the one Conductor who was hell bent on making sure he didn’t get a free ride? I believe it was made in the 50s or 60s Great movie from what I saw of it as I only caught the tail end of it. A1A maybe, not sure.

    Anyways, would possibly like to buy items you guys pick, but don’t live anywhere near the stores.
    Contacting the stores-how to buy-shipping charges= All what I want to know.
    Thanks Pickers and of course Danielle!

    1. Sarah Buckholtz Post Author

      Deano, we’re happy to hear that! Sorry to say though that the only way to buy picks is in store. They sell too fast to be put into an online database. Best thing to do is to cash in on some vacation time and head this way! Thanks for being a fan!

  32. Robin

    Love your show! We had a humble hobo, Monte Holm, in town all my life. Younger years he was poor but built a scrap metal business as a teen and later owned many things. A few notables were his own rail line (so no one could kick him off), the last operating steam locomotive from Alaska 557 and a presidential dining car. After his death in 2004 the locomotive was returned to Alaska and is currently being restored by volunteers. There is an awesome mural painted on our post office of him. He was a legend around here handing out Werthers caramels to everyone. He also wrote a autobiography….check it out!

  33. Ralph Gooding

    My dad started the Hobo convention in britt, IA.
    His name was Hood River Blackie and he wrote for true west and frontier times from 1974 to 1983. the hobo stories I could tell you at least the ones I remember dad passed away in 1984
    With Steam Train Murray Grahm,and Feather river John and Hood River Blackie (dad) they put together a hobo museum that still stands today and really brings in a lot of tourist attractions the big thing is when they select a hobo King and Queen,,,

  34. Karen

    I never knew this, it totally blew me away!
    I went to the website on the museum in Pitkin. I think it’s really great they unionized and everything. Thanks for enlightening me on this.

    Karen

  35. KickStart

    That was a good article, and there’s some great personal stories on here, as well. I have mine. I’ve lived near tracks my whole life as a child, so I was comfortable with the environment and people. In the late seventies as a young teen, I felt the need to travel. I hitchhiked my way around the state, but the dangers I met were all too real. It’s too bad, because I also met some really cool people, too. After that, in the early eighties, I took to the trains. It worked really well for moving around the state (California), and as I became experienced, even along the southern states. The southern states are tough because the bull will chase you at every chance.
    I once got stranded in the middle of nowhere because I stepped off a poor decision of a car to find a better one while the train was taking on more engines for a tall pass, and it took off like a shot before I could get back on. Fortunately, there was a farm nearby that had a migrant workers house, and they fed me well, a simple meal of beans, egg, and handmade tortilla, while I waited several hours for the next train.
    I lived on the streets many times, working for food or a place to stay. I never thought of myself as a hobo. That was old dudes. I also never remember any signs. I did find ‘bo camps wherever I went, but they tended to be dangerous places for a kid, so I always stayed to myself. Sometimes I would be treated kindly, sometimes not, and sometimes a little too kindly. The beauty of trains is once you know your destination and which line you need, if that’s important, then your need for people is over. As a kid, there’s comfort in that.
    I eventually landed in jail in El Paso because of someone I was traveling with. We left out of Cali together, but he shot someone, unbeknownst to me. I ended up in a lot of trouble at 17 (an adult in Texas) with a bleak future of road gangs or confinement. That ended my train travels for the most part. I would occasionally still ride up and down the state of California to visit family, but I learned to drive a truck and took a few trips to Canada.

  36. Ruth

    I live in Britt. Iowa, the home of the National Hobo Convention and the Hobo Museum. Anyone interested in the subject of honor should come check out the convention on the 2nd Saturday in August!

  37. Michal

    I really enjoyed your article!! I live in a little town in northern Iowa that celebrates hobos every August with Hobo Days. Growing up here I took it for granted, but now realize how little most people know about hobos and the fact that they were people looking for work and not a handout.

  38. Steven O'Reilly

    Thanks for posting the code markings. I remember my grandmother telling a story how she fed a man one day during the depression. My father was 1 of 9 children and they certainly did not have anything to share. Before she knew it, she had someone showing up everyday. She said that this was when she realized that their house was marked for a free meal and had to turn them away. After that, they stopped coming. I never understood how it worked before reading your blog, or really even what she meant by their house being marked, so thanks again!

  39. Darren Parro

    Great Story, I too spent some time on the road when I was 18 I traveled from Edmonton Alberta to Toronto Ontario, then on to Charlottetown Prince Edward Island, and then all the way back West to Cranbrook British Columbia. I spent approx. 3 1/2 years on this trek. I worked for food and lodging the entire trip. Slept in Ditches on the side of the Trans-Canada Highway 1 on more than one occasion. Along the way, I saw plenty of the Hobo Code writings and warnings. I saw one that was not on here. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until AFTERWORDS that I learned what one of them meant. It was to warn Hobo’s NOT to sleep in the Ditches due to Massasauga Rattlers being in the Ditches (lol) I met a lot of cool people and some real A**Holes on my Journey’s. I got picked up by a School Teacher once she went 250 KMs out of her way to get me where I needed to go, bought me Breakfast and a bag lunch to take with me after she dropped me off outside Winnipeg Manitoba. I will say that some of the Scenery while Hitching Trains and Car rides through British Columbia was some of the most Beautiful I have to this day ever seen. The trip was an eye-opening Experience and one I will never forget and is a story that I have passed on to my Daughters and if they have my Grandkids any time soon I will pass it on to them once they are old enough too. Also, the East Coast of Canada is also Beautiful too just in my opinion not nearly as Beautiful as the Mountains in British Columbia in the Summer. The hardest part was my 2nd Winter on the road I got stuck in the Prairies and let me tell you… You do not know Cold until your forced to live in it in the Prairies in Canada. Some nights got down to -45 degrees Celcius, I had a Mountain Tent and a -35 Degree rated Sleeping Bag and most nights that I had to spend outdoors I found a cave or some dense brush that somewhat blocked out the cold winds. But all in all, it was an Adventure that I will never forget as well as will cherish for the rest of my life. I to this day still keep in contact with that Teacher as well as a couple other people I met in my travels during that Chapter of my Life.

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