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.
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.
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!
Our next virtual tour takes us to the capital of Norway, the city of Oslo. There are many amazing places to visit in the city, from the Armed Forces Museum to the Viking Ship Museum. But by far, the largest is the Vigeland Park and museum.
The park is the life work of sculptor Gustav Vigeland, the result of over 40 years’ work. There are over 200 sculptures in granite, bronze and wrought iron, from the gates, across a bridge, past a large fountain and to the Monolith mound. The museum itself was his studio, and includes many of his sketches, mock-ups, and smaller works.
Vigeland’s motivation for the sculptures was to portray the breadth and depth of universal humanity, from birth to death, in as many stages of emotions and ages as he could capture. He intentionally left the titles of his works vague, allowing viewers to interpret through their own experiences. The reason that most of the statues are naked is for that same reason – he didn’t want a style of clothing to detract from the timelessness of the collective experience of humans, regardless of culture or era, age or gender.
I have been there twice, and it will always be on our list of things to do in Oslo when we are able to go; Oslo is one of my favourite cities, which is saying a lot as my husband and I tend to avoid cities on holidays, preferring nature and out-of-the-way spots instead. But like London, Oslo is packed with history and museums. Below are two of my own pictures, taken in August 2013.
So, who was Gustav Vigeland (1869–1943)? Born as Adolf Gustav Thorsen, he became one of the most famous Norwegian sculptors, and also has the distinction of being the designer of the Nobel Peace Prize medal. His father was a cabinetmaker, and one of his brothers, Emanuel Vigeland, became a noted artist. Gustav learned wood carving at school, but the sudden death of his father forced him to leave school to help support his family. The name Vigeland comes from the area where his grandparents lived, and where he lived with them for a time. He came to the attention of Brynjulf Bergslien, a sculptor, who took Gustav under his wing. His first personal exhibitions in Norway were in 1894 and 1896.
In 1902, he was involved in the restoration of the Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim, which influenced his art by the inclusion of dragons as the symbols of sin and as a force of nature fighting against man. Shortly thereafter, the city of Oslo gave him a studio in which to work, and the location of his growing exhibition became Frogner Park, now known to many as simply Vigeland Park.
The exhibition can sometimes evoke strong feelings; I’ve heard one person call it demonic because it portrays nudity; at the end of World War 2, one critic thought it “reeked of Nazi mentality”. But I have been there, and can honestly say that both of those sentiments are unfounded. If people are uncomfortable with the human form in its simplicity, they will have difficulty understanding the thoughtfulness that went into each sculpture. As to the second critique, some of the characters are posed as wrestling with various symbols – as everyone wrestles with things in various stages of their lives. Coming from the mindset of someone still stinging with the Nazi’s rule during World War 2, it is easy to understand how they could have interpreted any struggle in that light.
Below are a few links to take during your virtual tour:
Limbo-life goes on, but I thought I’d do a bit of dusting… of history, that is. I love historical images – they have a story that may have gotten lost over the years, or may document a significant achievement, such as the moon landings. Then there are those lovely photographs of bygone inventions: Some have succeeded into the modern era, while others were dumped somewhere along the wayside (and rightly so). Fortunately, the photo above falls into the latter category! As far as this topic goes, this is just a light dusting; there have been entire books and documentaries addressing this vast issue; if you’re interested in viewing a few documentaries on the topic, click here.
Makeup, as a topic of history, goes back thousands of years. Ancient Egypt is famous for their eyeliners and other cosmetic enhancements; lipstick may have been invented as far back as 5,000 years ago, by ancient Sumerians. The word “cosmetic” comes from Greek, and originally meant “technique of dress and ornament” or “skilled in ordering or arranging”. Natural ingredients used included charcoal, beeswax, crushed gemstones, castor oil, olive oil, milk (Cleopatra’s famous milk bath), rosewater, seaweed, fish scales (still used today), and seashells. In past ages, there were dubious forays into using tinctures of white lead, mercury, arsenic, quicklime, Belladonna, and even mouse fur eyebrows (for when the woman’s hair fell out due to using any of the above in combination…). A common insect still used in blushes and lipsticks is the cochineal, the Dactylopius coccus, a scale insect.
Probably as far back as the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in Europe, there has been a fascination with mechanics, even in the beauty industry (as illustrated by the image above). Though I have yet to find images that document the attempts at enhancing a man’s handsomeness, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of such inventions for women’s beauty. I think that fact simply reveals something about a deep-set, double-standard mindset that women need cosmetic improvement while men don’t *; that notion has been inescapably engrained into women for thousands of years (with the exception of the Egyptian culture, in which men used eyeliner just as much as the women). [*The two exceptions that I can find to this general trend is that men were berated in the mid-war years for being too scrawny, and they were encouraged to develop their physique; they were also ridiculed for baldness and were offered hair growth concoctions to counter the natural process.] While many of these gadgets and products have thankfully gone the way of the Dodo, some are still lurking around – and to them, I say, Shame on them for shaming natural features!
Here are a few other bygone mechanical attempts at enhancing the beauty of women: