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!