Category Archives: History Undusted

History Undusted: Bessie Coleman, Aviation Pioneer

I like to highlight, or “undust” figures or circumstances from history that few may have ever heard about, but that deserve to be remembered. Bessie Coleman is one such figure from history: In her life that was cut short, she made a difference by going against the norms and following her dreams, regardless of the limitations put on her by society because of her race and gender.

Bessie Coleman, 1923 – Photo Credit: George Rinhart, Corbis via Getty Images

Born in January 1892 in Atlanta, Texas, as the tenth of thirteen children in a sharecropper family, she worked in the cotton fields and attended a small, segregated school. She was not only African American but also had Cherokee heritage through her mixed-race father. Despite her humble beginnings, by 18 she’d managed to save enough money to attend one term of college at Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University (now Langston University) in Oklahoma, which was probably the closest university that would take a young black woman in the early 1900s. With no funds left, she moved back home, working and saving her money. At 23, she moved in with her brothers in Chicago, Illinois, and worked as a manicurist in a barbershop; there, she heard the tales of World War I pilots, and her dream was born.

Robert Sengstacke Abbot, Photo, Chicago Literary Hall of Fame

At the time, American aviation schools had no place for either African Americans or for women, but she was encouraged by Robert S. Abbott, founder and publisher of the Chicago Defender, to study abroad. He publicized her story in his newspaper, and she received the financial support to pursue her dream from a prominent African American banker, Jesse Binga, and from the Defender.

Jesse Binga, Credit: Wikipedia, John Schmidt

She took a French language course in Chicago, and in November 1920, she travelled to Paris to earn her pilot licence. On June 15, 1921, Coleman became the first African American woman as well as the first Native American to earn a pilot license and an international aviation license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. She then spent the next two months learning more from a French veteran pilot near Paris. In September 1921, she sailed back to America and became a media sensation.

With civilian commercial flights still a thing of the future, she would have to earn her money as a “barnstorming” stunt pilot. The skills needed to fly dangerous stunts were beyond her scope, and still out of her reach in America, so she again returned to Europe, where she trained in France. From there she went to the Netherlands to meet Anthony Fokker, one of the world’s most distinguished aircraft designers. At his company in Germany, she received further training from one of the company’s chief pilots. Returning once again to the US, she finally launched her career in exhibition flying.

“Queen Bess” was a popular draw for the next five years. She used public attention to engage audiences in promoting aviation and battling racism; she refused to take part in any aviation exhibitions that barred African Americans from attending. At one point, she was offered a role in a film, “Shadow and Sunshine.” She accepted, hoping that it would help her raise enough money to open her own aviation school. But when she learned that the first scene would portray her in ragged clothes, she walked off the set – her principles would not allow her to spread the disparaging image most whites had of most blacks.

Her goal was not just flying, but to make a difference in history; unfortunately, she did not live long enough to see just what a great influence she would have: On 30 April 1926, a faulty plane went into a dive and spin at 3,000 feet above ground; on the way down, Bess was thrown from the plane and killed on impact. Later, it was found that a wrench used to service the plane had been forgotten inside and had jammed the controls.

Posthumously, her name is honoured through the renaming of streets (including three in France), of roads near airports (including one at Frankfurt Germany’s international airport), a public library in Chicago, schools, aviation-related companies and wings of airports, scholarships, a US postage stamp (in 1995), a cartoon character, and she has been inducted into several halls of fame for both women as well as aviation; and last but certainly not least, she has a geological feature on the southern hemisphere of Pluto named in her honour, Coleman Mons.

William J. Powell, Pioneer aviator and civil rights activist

Lieutenant William J. Powell dedicated his book, Black Wings, to her. His sentiment is summed up well in a quote: “We have overcome that which was worse than racial barriers. We have overcome the barriers within ourselves and dared to dream.”  Powell founded the Bessie Coleman Aero Club in 1929. Mae Jemison, the first African-American female astronaut in space, carried a photo of Bessie Coleman with her on her first mission.

Mae Jemison, Photo credit: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

What I find most inspiring about her story is not only her unwavering determination to reach her goals, but that throughout her life, she found people willing and able to support her in accomplishing it: Without the idea encouraged by a publisher to look beyond the borders of America and promoted in his newspaper to raise support, without the teachers in Europe investing in her skills (how many inter-war pilots could say they’d been trained by top war ace pilots?), and without the financial support given at a time she needed it, her dreams might have remained unfulfilled, or too long in the making – those parameters needed to make her into a pilot who inspired future generations shifted drastically with the outbreak of the Second World War.

In Esther 4:14, Mordecai, the uncle of Queen Esther, tells her, “Who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” In the brief window of time that Bessie reached for the heavens, she may not have lived to see her legacy, but her life and death were not in vain.

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Virtual Tour: Money Museum

Let’s go on a virtual outing! This time, to a Swiss museum located on my doorstep, in Zürich. I can’t imagine a better place to have a museum on that topic.

Have you ever wondered where coins started, or what the history of money is? Look no further. Have you ever wondered what blockchain technology is, or what cryptocurrencies are (and there are over 8 thousand so far!)?

Included in the tour are 5-minute podcasts exploring the topic of money, as well as visual tours of coins throughout time and regions.

Besides the online presence, this museum is also a library and a forum, where people can gather for lectures and discussion groups around the topic of money, finances, markets, etc.

Coins are just one form of payment, but throughout the centuries, different people have put a value on different objects, and trading them became a type of currency: When the Russian currency nosedived in value, vodka became a currency because, in that culture, vodka was the most stable commodity! In other cultures, beads, shells, water gourds, and many other objects have been currency; in another article, I’ve talked about hack silver – jewellery worn with scoring to allow easy division into pieces to trade for goods.

Here’s a quick question for you: Do you know what your money really looks like? We may have handled it dozens of times in a week, but have we ever really stopped to examine it? I remember back when shillings were still valid coinage in Britain – they were used in lieu of 5p pieces; when the new coins came into circulation, I would have been hard-pressed to tell you what they’d looked like before! The same goes for banknotes here in Switzerland, which changed to the current design back in 1995. Once a new coin or banknote comes into use, it’s hard to remember what the old ones looked like. Interestingly, some Swiss coins have not changed; I once found a 10-rappen coin in my purse from 1899! It went straight into my coin collection. Since then, I always check my loose change. As a matter of fact, the 10-rappen coin holds the Guinness World Record for the oldest original currency in circulation.

The history and scope of money is a fascinating one, once you scratch below the surface. Click here to take the virtual tour through the world of money, and enjoy!

The Swiss 10-rappen coin, the oldest original currency in circulation today.

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History Undusted: Advent Calendars

This month has flown by! Last weekend was our church’s annual advent market, and I was present with tables full of crafts, as well as marble-iced cookies, Spitzbuben, cheese cookies & apple chips (dehydrated). Before it took off, I was preparing, baking, labelling, and doing all the little bits and bobs to get ready; it went off well, considering the limitations of Covid. I also got our own Advent calendar completed – I talk about that more in a previous post. But the whole topic of the market got me wondering where Advent calendars started, so I thought I’d share with you what I’ve discovered: As you probably know, advent calendars today can take any form you choose; the only common factor is that they usually cover 24 days and begin on 1 December (as opposed to following the 4 Advent Sundays – this year, the first Sunday fell on 28 November). The first calendars weren’t: In the early 1800s, German protestants began marking chalk lines on a wall or lighting a candle each day of the Advent season; they sometimes accompanied the act with a devotional reading or with an image centered around the advent, or coming, of Jesus (traditionally celebrated on 25 December, though that was hardly his birthday – but that’s another topic). The first actual calendars were made of cardboard in Germany, and appeared in the early 1900s; they often had either a poem or a picture behind each door, and were produced until World War 2, when the Nazis banned their use on the excuse that cardboard was scarce – and then, in 1943, they promptly sent out advent booklets to every mother in the land – but they seem to have missed the point: their versions had images of German soldiers blowing up Russian tanks and sinking allied ships!
The Nazi’s idea of Advent celebrations… the less said, the better!
After the war, Richard Sellmer, of Stuttgart, was able to get permission from the allied officials to begin printing cardboard Advent calendars once again, and his company still produces them today – click here to visit their website. After the war was over, the American soldiers took the idea back to the States; their popularity took off in the 1950s after a photo appeared in a newspaper of President Eisenhower’s grandchildren with a Sellmer calendar.
Image from the Sellmer website, showing President Eisenhower’s grandchildren opening a Sellmer calendar
I guess you could say that the rest is history! With Advent beginning, I hope yours is ready for Wednesday! And Christmas is coming soon! If you’re interested in knowing the history behind Santa’s red suit, just click here!

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Famous Last Words: Major General John Sedgwick

Killed in the 1864 Battle of Spotsylvania by a sharpshooter, his ironic last words were:

“They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.”

Major General John Sedgwick; source, Wikipedia

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History Undusted: The Personal History of a Household Apron

Aprons have probably been around since the dawn of clothing; up until the Industrial Revolution, most people only had the clothes on their backs, or at most one additional change of clothing – in which case they were considered either very well off or thieves; a large number of the thefts reported in the 17th and 18th centuries had to do with clothing articles; the clothes made the man or woman, and if they could upgrade their wardrobe through “five-finger discounting,” they might have a better chance at finding a good job with better wages.  The style of aprons has changed through the years, and while sometimes their function was little more than a fashion statement, such as in the painting below, their main purpose has never become obsolete:  To carry out every imaginable chore in and around the home.

Dancing Girl, Levitsky Dmitry, 1735-1822

My paternal grandparents, the Herrings, were Kansas pioneer farmers; my grandmother (Mary Mae) headed west from Indiana in a covered wagon with her parents (James Allen and Carrie Christine Higbee nee Aaroe) as a baby; she grew up on the prairies of Kansas, met my grandfather, and the rest is history.

Nis and Maren Kirstine Aaroe-Aagaard, immigrants from Vonsild, Nørre Tyrstrup, Vejle, Denmark, who settled in Kansas; taken ca 1890. My great-great grandmother is in her daily apron at the spinning wheel.

Most of my childhood memories are of my paternal grandparents’ farm; we spent many weekends there helping out, and I spent a week or two every summer with them.  My grandmother was always in an apron, except for Sunday mornings and special events – and those are the times when photographs were taken, so unfortunately I don’t have a photo of her in an apron.  But I have something much better:  A hand-sewn quilt, made lovingly by her from around 1920 to the late 1970s.  The materials used for that quilt are her old aprons, Sunday dress scraps and other spare cloths; I remember seeing her in several of them.

Apron Quilt, Grandma Herring, sewn between 1920s and late 1970s
Apron – 1950s Vintage Fashionable Aprons

Being a farmer’s wife, my grandmother’s aprons weren’t as fancy as these vintage patterns shown above; they were plain, simple and hand-made; they did what they were needed for, and no more, no less.  But as simple as they might have been, those aprons were worth their weight in gold on a farm:  They protected her scanty wardrobe – she didn’t need much, didn’t want much, and was satisfied to take care of what she’d been blessed with.  Those aprons carried baby chicks, kittens, flowers, herbs, chicken eggs, apples, firewood and wood chips, baby birds fallen from nests in a wind storm, and the occasional sugar cube for the horses.  They wiped away tears, cleaned dirty faces, dusted furniture if guests were walking up the path, took delicious things from the oven, cold things from the freezer, and helped open canning jars.  They shaded a cold pie on her lap in the old Chevy truck while we bounced across the fields to bring my grandfather a picnic for lunch break in the summer heat (she could have used an old quilt for the pie, but that was often used to cradle a large mason jar full of ice cold water, the best thirst-quencher I know). Those aprons helped gather grains, and stones to move either from the garden or to the flower bed.  They carried chicken feed and broken eggs shells to feed the chickens to make their eggs stronger; they held potatoes, carrots, green beans, corn, sweet peas, strawberries and squash.  They were the perfect cradle for a garden watermelon, rolling it into the refrigerator to get it nice and cold on a hot day. They warmed her hands on a cold day as she dug for the last of the potatoes before winter’s freeze, and hid her dirty hands when guests arrived unannounced.  They polished cutlery, fanned her face to cool her down on a sweltering hot day, and were the perfect place to hide for shy children.  One never knew what that apron would do next.

Little could my paternal grandmother have guessed that the quilt she made from so many scraps of memories would eventually accompany her granddaughter back over the ocean her mother had traversed as a newborn baby from Denmark, and end up within 20 km from where my maternal ancestors have been traced: Zofingen, Aargau, Switzerland. I can’t imagine any other piece of cloth carrying so much history, authority, importance, practicality, humility, common sense and love.

Adapted from an article originally posted on History Undusted, 5 Oct. 2015

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Psychology Undusted: Lines of Desire

Have you ever felt guilty for taking a shortcut across a grassy patch rather than following the official concrete path? Or have you ever noticed a bare strip through grass? These are known as desire paths, or lines of desire (the latter term comes from the French phrase, “lignes de désir”, from the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s 1958 book, “The Poetics of Space”).

Architects would be well advised to pay attention to these worn paths when planning official paths through public parks or around businesses, because no matter how neat their officially-laid paths look, those lines of desire will continue to be followed and worn into the earth. Perhaps it’s a manifestation of democracy triumphing when a desire path gets paved over after the fact.

So why do they happen? Sometimes it’s a question of taking a shortcut from one building to the next, or from one corner to the next. Sometimes they are made out of consideration for others: During the pandemic, new lines of desires began appearing, but rather than being shortcuts, they simply ran parallel to existing paths – these were likely an attempt at avoiding proximity with others when passing on a side walk. Desire paths can be seen as the paths of least resistance, or as a silent protest against being told where to walk or how to get from points A to B. These paths have been seen as symbols of rebellion, anarchism, individual creativity, intuitive design, opportunities to take fate into one’s own hands even if treading the expected nine-to-five otherwise, or even as a passive aggressive reaction against authority.

Many languages have their own terms for desire paths or lines of desire: In Dutch, they’re known as “elephant paths”, and in French, they’re known as donkey paths, while the Germans, pragmatically, call them “trample paths” (so unimaginative!) But the diversity proves that desire paths are a universal human tendency.

Some businesses or schools, such as the University of Michigan, waited until students and staff showed them where paths would be most appreciated before paving them in; the aerial view (Google Earth) over the campus shows the intricate weave of the lines of desire that would likely not have occurred to the landscape architects:

I’d encourage you to take a walk, keeping an eye out for those lines of desire near you; if you’d prefer not to go out, then take a virtual walk – google the term “desire paths” in the image mode, and see just what pops up! Enjoy!

Personal update:

For those of you following our situation, I will say that the day after my last update everything got turned on its head once again! Chemo has been delayed another 3-4 weeks, as my husband ended up in emergency again, and they finally decided to rebuild his stoma before starting chemo. He’s now back home after over a week in the hospital, and is gaining appetite, and hopefully gaining weight again now! He’ll have a couple weeks to recover before the next phase of his treatment takes off… that’s as of THIS moment. Planning further ahead than a day is a bit pointless right now, so it’s a wait-and-see game…

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History Undusted: Limbo

Over the past year and more, we’ve all experienced limbo in one form or another: Lock downs, restrictions, cancellations of events or flights or holidays or plans to meet up with friends, and the uncertainty of how long it will all last. Then there is the feeling of limbo that comes with my personal situation of waiting for the cascade of appointments for my husband’s chemo to begin; we had a set-back last week with a bacterial infection and a week’s hospitalization, so we’ll just have to wait and see if he can keep the appointments already made or not. Limbo. Waiting to find out if he can be brought home tomorrow. Limbo.

My writing, both in the forms of this blog and of my manuscript, have both been sucked into the state of limbo as well, as I’ve spent most of the past few weeks, and more intensively the past three days, on the phone with people who’ve asked how we’re doing, or answering messages on my phone or social media. Sometimes I feel like my manuscript is calling for me to work on it, and I’m trying to reach it while wading toward it waist-deep in a thick sludge of other priorities – it’s been just out of reach for days, because by the time I actually reach it, I have no energy left.

As I was thinking about those limbo moments, I actually started wondering just where the limbo dance comes from, historically; I remember doing it as a child – the local indoor skating rink played limbo every night. So, here’s a brief low-down on the low-down dance:

The origins are vague, as is the etymology of the name: Starting in late-1800s Trinidad, the name might have come from the Jamaican English “limba“, i.e. limber. Interestingly, the game is used in Africa as a funeral game, and there may be a connection between the two regions through the slave trade which brought Africans to the Jamaican islands, as it is also a popular “dance” for wakes in Trinidad. The rules are simple: a person passes under a bar, face-up, with the only body part allowed to touch the ground being the feet. The game is considered the unofficial national game of Trinidad and Tobago, it only began to gain popularity beyond the region in the 1950s; it was adopted in the mid-1950s as a form of physical exercise for American military troops. It was often attempted to a rhythmic song, and one of the most popular was the Limbo Rock, by Chubby Checker. Just listening to the song brings back the feeling of the cool breeze blowing around the skating rink as people sped to get in line for the limbo stick as soon as they heard the music start over the loudspeaker!

As we face our own times of limbo in this age of Corona, or in the circumstances we find ourselves in, perhaps it would perk up our spirits to hum the Limbo Rock and take it with a bow and a smile.

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History Undusted: The Kindred Spirits of the Choctaw & the Irish

I recently heard of an unusual historical connection between a tribe of survivors from the Trail of Tears, and those struggling with survival half a world away during the Irish Potato Famine, 1845-1852.

The Choctaws were one of the Native American nations who were forcibly displaced between 1830 and 1850, along with Cherokee, Creek (Muscogee), Seminole and the Chickasaw nations. Basically, any land the white insurgents wanted, they took, driving out tribes from their ancestral homes; thousands died of exposure, starvation and disease on the road to their designated reserves.

But in the midst of their own sorrows, the Choctaw people heard about the plight of the Irish famine, and they responded with generosity. They collected $170 (which would be around $5,200 today) and sent it to the Irish in 1847. While gifts flowed to Ireland from various sources, the gift of this native tribe touched the Irish deeply; despite their own tragedies, they reached out and gave the Irish people hope – hope that they weren’t alone and that others cared.

Fast-forward to the Covid-19 challenges facing many Indian reservations: Many people are unemployed and barely scraping by; a lack of running water or electricity is common, so you can imagine how challenging it is for them to keep their hands clean and to be able to meet hygiene requirements – as a result, the Corona Virus has swept through these impoverished communities. A Navajo woman, Ethel Branch, started a GoFundMe, hoping to raise money to help support reservation families; she set the goal at $50,000, thinking it was far too ambitious and expecting only about a thousand dollars to come in. But the Irish heard about it, and they’ve been paying it forward, back to the people they never forgot and who they teach about in their history lessons; so far, over $5 million has been raised.

For a short news report on the story, click here.

One tweet made all the difference in this new chapter of an intercontinental friendship. This story reminds me that when we respond with empathy and generosity, even the smallest acts of kindness can encourage others, and, as the saying goes, what goes around comes around.

Stay safe, stay healthy, and keep an eye out for those who need an encouraging word or deed – you may change a life.

Alex Pentek’s “Kindred Spirits” sculpture, County Cork, Ireland

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Virtual Tour: Warther Museum, Ohio

I don’t know about you, but I love going to museums; I’ve been in huge museums such as the British Museum, Victoria & Albert Museum, and the Maritime Museum, all in London, or the Swiss National Museum in Zurich, or the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain; but some of the best museums I’ve seen have also been smaller. The mega-museums usually have so much to see that you can really only cover a wing or two in a day; but I’m the kind of visitor who likes to sit and contemplate the exhibit a while before moving on, which means I can cover even less ground. I’ll often absorb the information and history by creating a calligram or two (such as this ammonite). Pocket-sized museums, however, can offer a lot for their size; they often tell the story of the region, or of one family that made a difference in their worlds.

Today’s tour takes us the the latter kind of museum: The Warther Museum, in Dover, Ohio, tells the story of a man and his wife, Ernest & Frieda Warther, who had passion for what they did and for their community. The museum houses the collections of buttons and arrowheads the couple collected, which Frieda mounted and arranged into designs. Ernest “Mooney” Warther was a master wood carver, and his finest work, a locomotive engine car with moving parts throughout, was deemed by the Smithsonian as a masterpiece.

To see the collections for yourself and read the story of this little gem, just click here. Enjoy learning about a fascinating little piece of history!

Image credit: Warther Museum website

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Virtual Tour 6: Hobos

Today’s tour isn’t of a place, but of a group of people: Hobos. Come along with me as we explore their origins, their ethics, their slang, and even their secret language of symbols.

Hobos were migratory workers that began as displaced soldiers after the American Civil War, fought between 1861 and 1865. The conflict laid waste to large swaths of land, and many men returning found that they had no home to return to, or found families so economically devastated by the war that they couldn’t afford another mouth to feed – so those men took to the railways to take them cross-country looking for work. Before the advent of the train, these men tramped – walked – around the countryside in search of work. While railroads began in the US around 1830, they were not really nationwide until after 1910. Another group of people who took to life on the road were young men from large families; removing a hungry mouth or two could greatly benefit the family; some left with tearful goodbyes and promises to send wages when they could; others slipped out in the night and left on their adventure into the wider world.

The story goes that in the distant past, boys were often hired on temporarily to help with agricultural harvests; they were referred to as simply “boys”; but to distinguish them from other groups of workers, they were named after one of their tools, the hoe; gradually the term drifted from hoe-boy to the word we know today, “Hobo”. There is, in fact, no etymology of the word that I could find. It might also come from a railroad worker’s call on late 19th century railroads, “Ho, boy”, ho being a variation of “whoa”, used to either call attention from a distance, or as a command to stop. Perhaps the true origin of the word lies somewhere in between.

Both tramp and bum come from German, trampeln and bummeln, both referring to trekking, walking, ambling or wandering. But because both tramps and bums were associated with being lazy and opportunistic thieves, hobos carried the same stigma. Hobos, however, were honest and free; they had a strict moral code, were hard-working, and some even chose that lifestyle above their own personal wealth or position, such as James Eads Howe, founder of the International Brotherhood Welfare Association, an aid society for hobos; he was born into a wealthy family in St. Louis, Missouri, but he chose instead to live as a hobo. Some simply wanted to live with no strings attached, no address to be found by state or federal government; today, we might call it living off-grid, though our contemporary version is far more luxurious than those early migrants could have ever aspired to.

James Eads Howe, founder of the International Brotherhood Welfare Association, an aid society for hobos. 1922. Source: Library of Congress

Up through the 1920s, hobos defined themselves in terms of being free-spirited; but when the subculture exploded during the late 1920s and early 1930s as the Great Depression forced men, women and children onto the highways and byways looking for work to survive, the hobo popular image shifted to a symbol of poverty wracking the nation. As factories closed across the country, many had no choice but to migrate. The most famous image from that time is by Dorothea Lange, taken of Florence Owen Thompson, a mother of seven starving children, living in a shanty during a pea harvest in Nipomo, California in 1936. The photographer captured the plight of the migrant workers, prompting the government to send food to the camp; the images did not gain popularity until the 1950s, however; it was probably too painfully familiar to people to garner much contemporary appreciation. After the Great Depression had passed, and World War 2 was over, the number of hobos decreased drastically, but has never died out completely.

Dorothea Lange’s famous Migrant Mother, age 32, Nipomo, California
Source: Library of Congress

Today, the hobo culture continues; whether they’re called hobos, or trainhoppers, or drifters, or solo ramblers, strays, or vagabonds, it is a worldwide movement. In South America, it is estimated that 400-500,000 migrants hop trains annually in an attempt to reach the United States. As Corona lockdowns affect companies, leading to layoffs and bankruptcies, I think we’ll see a surge in the number of hobos. Every year in Britt, Iowa, a hobo convention is held, where they celebrate the positive aspects of living free, and likely discuss how to do it honourably and well. It’s a chance to connect, and to feel part of a community while still being independent. Click here to see a few images from their 2013 convention.

Hobos didn’t just try to work hard; they had a moral code of conduct that included these tenets:

  • Decide your own life; don’t let another person rule you or run you.
  • When in towns, always respect the local law and officials – be a gentleman at all times.
  • Always try to find work, even if temporary, and look for jobs nobody wants. You’ll be helping a business along, but you’ll also ensure good will if you return to that town again.
  • Don’t take advantage of the vulnerable – either locals or other hobos.
  • When no work is available, make your own work – use your talents.
  • Don’t set a bad example for locals’ treatment of other hobos by becoming a stupid drunk.
  • Always respect nature – do not leave garbage where you are jungling.
  • If in a community jungle, pitch in and help. Help others whenever needed – you may need their help one day.
  • When jungling in town, respect handouts and don’t wear them out – other hobos will be coming along who may need them more than you.
  • Don’t cause trouble in rail yards or in towns – other hobos will be coming, and they need the goodwill.
  • Try to stay clean – bathe whenever possible.
  • When travelling, ride your train respectfully – take no personal chances, cause no problems with the train crew, and act like an extra crew member – help where you can.
  • Do not allow other hobos to molest children – expose them to the law – they are the worst garbage to infest a society.
  • Help all runaway children, and try to talk them into returning home.

I’d say that these rules are good for everyone to live by, no matter what their status or situation. Besides a code of ethics, they had a separate language. Here’s some of their colourful slang:

  • Accommodation Car = Caboose of a train
  • Bad road = a train line made unusable by some hobo’s bad action or crime
  • Banjo = a small portable frying pan, sometime a “D” handled shovel
  • Barnacle = a person who sticks to one job for a year or more
  • Beachcomber = a hobo who hangs around seaports or dockyards
  • Bindle Stick = a collection of belongings wrapped in cloth and tie at the end of a stick
  • Blowed-in-the-grass = a trustworthy, genuine person
  • Bone Polisher = a mean dog
  • Bone Orchard = graveyard
  • C, H & D = a person is Cold, Hungry and Dry (thirsty)
  • California Blankets = bedding made of newspaper
  • Calling in = using someone else’s campfire to warm up or cook
  • Catch the Westbound = to die
  • Chuck a Dummy = pretend to faint
  • Cover with the Moon = Sleep out in the open
  • Docandoberry = anything growing along a river that’s edible
  • Easy Mark = 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, “Flophouse”, a cheap hotel
  • Glad rags = one’s best clothes
  • Graybacks, Crumbs = lice
  • Gump = a chicken
  • Honey Dipping = working with a shovel in a sewer
  • Hot = 1) a fugitive hobo; 2) a decent meal (“I could use three hots and a flop”)
  • Hot Shot = fast freight train, stops rarely
  • Jungle = an area off a railroad where hobos camp and congregate. Jungle Buzzard = a hobo or tramp who preys on his own
  • Knowledge Bus = a school bus used for shelter
  • Maeve = a young hobo, usually a girl; similar to Angelina (a young, inexperienced child)
  • Mulligan = a type of community stew, created by several hobos combining their ingredients
  • On the Fly = jumping a moving train
  • Padding the Hoof = travel by foot
  • Possum Belly = ride on the roof of a passenger car (one must lie flat)
  • Rum Dum = a drunkard
  • Sky Pilot = a preacher or minister
  • Spare Biscuits = looking for food in garbage cans
  • Stemming = panhandling or begging

Source: New Braunfels Railroad Museum, Texas

When hobos travelled from town to town, they never knew what to expect – would they be welcomed, or arrested? Out of the necessity to be prepared, a language of symbols grew: A hobo could give those who came after him a good idea of what to expect – was there work available? Would the police arrest a hobo on sight? Could you get a good meal at this house or that? The hobo would leave these symbols nearby – etched in the dirt road near a house, or marked on a stone or tree or a wall or a railcar. Here is an example of the symbols, though there are many more! Reading through them gives you a glimpse of some of the things they were up against.

In the images below, the young man getting on the train and the one cooking over a fire with a can on a stick are one and the same man – World lightweight boxing champion Lou Ambers, who travelled across the US to compete in Bootleg Bouts to earn money for his widowed mother.

I hope you enjoyed this tour of the world of hobos – without the dangers of train hopping!

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