If You Rode the Rails in the 1930s, Hobo Code is How You'd Know Where to Go

Modern people have a rather romantic view of the itinerant hobo tradition of the 1930s. It's easy to see why. Just think: packing up a bindle, walking out the door, and setting out on the rails for a life of freedom and adventure. But it's a hard life on the road. You'd need all the help that you could get. Fortunately, you'd have your fellow hobos — and the hobo code they used to communicate with each other.

The Writing's on the Wall

From exposure to the elements to unfriendly residents to the threat of arrest for their dubiously legal practices, a life on the rails led to no shortage of danger. And that's where the hobo code comes in. Let's say you've just come in on the rails and you're looking for a place to stay. You pass three mailboxes as you ramble down the road. The first has a tiny chalk drawing of a tall triangle with two arms pointing upward. The second is marked as well, with a sideways, four-armed "E" inside a square. The final one has got what looks like a little cat made out of ovals.

Which one do you choose? The cat, every single time. You've stumbled on messages from hobos who have walked this path before you. The first house (tall triangle) is home to a man with a gun. The second (the "E" in the square) has a vicious dog. And a kindhearted woman lives at the third (oval cat) house. There are lots of other symbols, too — a cross means "act religious and you'll get food," a downward-pointing crescent moon with an X on one end means "don't believe this person," and a tiny sketch of a bird means "you can use the phone here."

Not every piece of hobo code would be written on someone's residence, however. It was just as useful for helping out with navigation or imparting general information about the area. A rectangle with a diagonal line extending from the lower left-hand corner means "booze is illegal here." A pair of shovels says "work available." Two horizontal lines with a squiggle in-between means "don't drink the water," while the squiggle along with two circles and an X says "good water and good campsite."

As you can probably imagine, the code was subject to a lot of variation over the years. It almost seems like a miracle that it ever codified into an understandable language at all. But it starts to make more sense with a better understanding of what a hobo actually is.

Ohhh, We Eat from Pails, Ohhh-oh, Livin' on the Rails

So, "hobo" is a pretty outdated term — except in some circles. But according to the website of the National Hobo Convention (started in 1900, and yes, it's still going on), the hobos of the late 19th and early 20th centuries "were 'homeless' by choice; they worked to travel and traveled to work." In other words, don't think of the hobo as an unemployed drifter. Just like everybody else, their lives were driven by the work they could find, where they could find it.

If you do decide to make it out to the convention in Britt, Iowa, you'll find yourself welcomed with open arms. Anyone can attend and participate in the event, although you must have ridden the rails to be nominated for "King of Hobos" or to participate in the Hobo Council. But just the fact that this event exists makes it a lot clearer how the hobo code could have come to be.

The Hobo Code

Written by Reuben Westmaas December 19, 2017

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