The origins of the term "Hobo" cannot be traced. A few suggestions have been put forward. Some say it comes from "Hoe Boy" because many migrant workers traveled with a hoe or other farming tool. Others claim it came from the soldiers returning from the Civil War, who were "Homeward Bound." Some suggest it is from the congenial greeting "Hello boy" that changed to "Lo boy" and "Lo bo" and finally to "Ho bo." Others think it came from the word hoosier, meaning a rustic individual, a frontiersman. There are even those who say it comes from the Latin Homo Bonus, meaning good man, or the French haut beaux, the highest of the handsome. Few, if any, of these explanations seem adequate.
However the term "Hobo" originated, it came into common usage by the end of the 19th century. But the history of hobos began decades earlier. Though not called hobos, but frequently referred to merely as tramps, men had long been traveling around picking up work. Most modern hobos, however, trace their lineage to the building of the railroads and the end of the Civil War.
Many Civil War veterans couldn't, or didn't want to, return home and took jobs with the expanding railroads. Between 1866 and 1873, 35,000 miles of new track was laid across the country, much of it as part of the Transcontinental Railroad. The laborers moved west with the track that they laid.
The Panic of 1873 and the depression that followed led men to climb aboard the freight trains in search of work. Jumping on slow-moving freights, they moved across the country following the different harvest seasons or working in mining or lumber camps. The situation repeated itself with the Great Depression of the 1930s. Thousands of men in search of work took to the rails and roads.
One trait hobos have in common is that they travel and work. They take pride in this attribute and often travel with the implements of their trade. In the 1880s, they began to distinguish themselves from "tramps" and "bums." Hobos have a work ethic. They willingly work for pay or food. In fact, they travel around the country as workers, not only because they enjoy the freedom, but also to earn a stake to get them through the winter. Tramps, as defined by the hobos, are people who travel, but prefer not to work, and bums neither travel nor work.
Although inextricably linked with the trains, some hobos traveled by car, others on foot. They traveled to work and worked to travel — the lifestyle of a hobo. A hobo's life could be exciting and dangerous, fulfilling and lonely, easygoing and difficult. The hobos sought not only employment, but also the freedom and independence the life allotted them. But that life also came with hardships and danger.
Not only is hopping a train illegal, it is extremely dangerous. Many hobos were killed or injured while trying to board or jump off a moving freight train. Others became locked inside box or refrigerator cars, their bodies found weeks later. Some hobos found places on trains to hide from the "bulls" who policed the cars, only to be crushed when the freight shifted. Still, despite the inherent hazards, thousands of hobos in the Depression made "rail riding" their chosen form of transportation.
Among the hardships of the hobo life were the attitudes and prejudices hobos faced from the townspeople and farmers they met along their way. All hobos felt the anger of local residents who thought hobos were lazy tramps looking for a free handout or were taking work from local men. Black hobos faced additional discrimination. However, during the Depression, the prejudice and ill-treatment they endured came more often from the law rather than from their brethren hobos. Although very few in number, women hobos faced the fear, and occasional reality, of assault in addition to the dangers and hardships the male hobos suffered.
In some places, hobos who drifted into town were not always welcome. In other places, they found those who were friendly and willing to help. Knowing where to go or whom to avoid was important to these travelers. However, hobos' paths crossed infrequently, so the hobo community developed a written communication system of signs. Mysterious and temporary, these signs helped hobos move more safely around the country looking for work. A symbol on a mailbox, fence post, signpost, or tree told other hobos what to expect in the town or from the homeowner.
The origin of the signs, like the Hobo name, is lost to history, but some of the symbols and their meanings have been documented. Carl Liungman's Dictionary of Symbols
makes a connection between the hobo signs in the U.S. with those in England and the gypsy signs used in Sweden. A few of the symbols are the same. Several look the same, but have a different meaning. And still more are completely different, even if the information being relayed is similar. Like any language, written or spoken, over time it develops independently to meet the needs of those using it.
What's interesting to note, as Liungman points out, is that the system developed at all. Hobos, in general, travel alone and enjoy their independence. And yet, they still congregate in hobo jungles or travel with an occasional partner only to split when they decide to go a different way. Despite this preference for solitude, they still feel a certain camaraderie with their fellow hobos, an obligation to assist their brethren — thus, the creation of the signs and symbols.
Some of the signs appear to have a visual connection to their meaning. A drawing of a top hat means a wealthy man lives here. Others seem to indicate no relationship between the meaning and the symbol. A good code system makes no intuitive correlation between the code and its meaning. However, this then requires an explanation for the intended user. The definitions and explanations of the approximately 50 different hobo signs had to be passed on. Perhaps experienced hobos told young men what to look for as they traveled in a boxcar or sat at the campfire of a hobo jungle near a train yard.
The signs relayed information concerning a variety of topics important to the hobo. Symbols indicated where one could find a meal and whether work would be required first. Some signs described whether the police in town were friendly or that a hobo should keep moving. During the depression of the 1930s, Prohibition was also the law. Signs told whether a town was "dry." Other symbols marked a good location to catch a train. All of it was information a hobo could use.
The signs were intentionally temporary. Hobos used chalk or charcoal to mark an immediate location. The signs wore off in time. This may have been because situations were frequently in flux. A farmer may initially be helpful, but later, as resources or work diminished, he may order the hobo away. A woman who first took pity from a hobo's sad tale may become hardened after hearing too many.
No one knows exactly when or how the signs were created, nor are they in use today. Information for today's hobo is equally important, but in our modern world even the hobos make use of the communication systems on the Internet. With free access available in many libraries and community centers, hobos are no longer dependent on chalk marks. They have websites and email to share details of their travels and upcoming hobo events.
Interestingly, however, chalk marks similar to the hobo signs sprang up in 2002 precisely because of the Internet. "Warchalking" used symbols to mark areas of unsecured wireless networks. Like the hobos of the 20th century marking a good place to hop a freight train, just a few years ago travelers with a wireless card could, in some cases illegally, make use of these unsecured nodes for their PDAs and notebooks. The practice of "warchalking" was short-lived, however. New technological advances in wireless security and the advent of accessible Wi-Fi Zones put an end to the need for "warchalking." Wi-Fi Zones are widely available to travelers and, in some cases, are free. Their locations are clearly and more permanently marked than any hobo sign ever was.
Despite the many predictions that hobos would soon be a thing of the past due to the reduction in railroad lines, the faster diesel trains, and few jobs for seasonal workers, hobos still exist today. Some still engage in the dangerous and illegal practice of hopping freight cars; others drive the roads. Today, signs of hobos can be found in places like bridges and overpasses written in permanent marker. They may list the hobo's name, date, and his next destination. But gone are the secret signs and symbols of their predecessors.