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Two hobos walking along railroad tracks after being put off a train. One is carrying a



A hobo is a migrant worker or homeless vagrant, especially one who is impoverished. The term originated in the Western—probably NorthwesternUnited States around 1890.[1] Unlike a “tramp“, who works only when forced to, and a “bum“, who does not work at all, a “hobo” is a traveling worker.


The origin of the term is unknown. According to etymologist Anatoly Liberman, the only certain detail about its origin is the word was first noticed in American English circa 1890.[1] Liberman points out that many folk etymologies fail to answer the question: “Why did the word become widely known in California (just there) by the early Nineties (just then)?”[1] Author Todd DePastino notes that some have said that it derives from the term “hoe-boy”, meaning “farmhand”, or a greeting such as “Ho, boy”, but that he does not find these to be convincing explanations[2] Bill Bryson suggests in Made in America (1998) that it could either come from the railroad greeting, “Ho, beau!” or a syllabic abbreviation of “homeward bound”.[3] It could also come from the words “homeless boy”. H. L. Mencken, in his The American Language (4th ed., 1937), wrote:

Tramps and hobos are commonly lumped together, but see themselves as sharply differentiated. A hobo or bo is simply a migrant laborer; he may take some longish holidays, but sooner or later he returns to work. Lower than either is the bum, who neither works nor travels, save when impelled to motion by the police.[4][5]


Illustration of burning wood pieces producing flames in a metal cylinder with a cooking pot resting on it. Arrows depict air flow through round holes in the lower part of the cylinder and out the top.

Cutaway illustration of a

hobo stove

, a portable wood-burning stove using air convection

It is unclear exactly when hobos first appeared on the American railroading scene. With the end of the American Civil War in the 1860s, many discharged veterans returning home began hopping freight trains. Others looking for work on the American frontier followed the railways west aboard freight trains in the late 19th century.

In 1906, Professor Layal Shafee, after an exhaustive study, put the number of tramps in the United States at about 500,000 (about 0.6% of the US population at the time). His article “What Tramps Cost Nation” was published by The New York Telegraph in 1911, when he estimated the number had surged to 700,000.[6]

The number of hobos increased greatly during the Great Depression era of the 1930s.[7] With no work and no prospects at home, many decided to travel for free by freight train and try their luck elsewhere.

Life as a hobo was dangerous. In addition to the problems of being itinerant, poor, and far from home and support, plus the hostility of many train crews, they faced the railroads’ security staff, nicknamed “bulls”, who had a reputation of violence against trespassers.[8] Moreover, riding on a freight train is dangerous in itself. British poet W. H. Davies, author of The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp, lost a foot when he fell under the wheels when trying to jump aboard a train. It was easy to be trapped between cars, and one could freeze to death in bad weather. When freezer cars were loaded at an ice factory, any hobo inside was likely to be killed.[9]

Around the end of World War II, railroads began to transition from steam to diesel locomotives, making jumping freight trains more difficult. This, in combination with increased postwar prosperity, led to a decline in the number of hobos. In the 70s and 80s hobo numbers were augmented by returning Vietnam War veterans, many of whom were disillusioned with settled society. Overall, the national economic demand for a mobile surplus labor force has declined over time, leading to fewer hobos.[10][11]

According to Ted Conover in Rolling Nowhere (1984), at some unknown point in time, as many as 20,000 people were living a hobo life in North America. Modern freight trains are much faster and thus harder to ride than in the 1930s, but they can still be boarded in railyards.[12][page needed]


Expressions used through the 1940s

Hobos were noted for, among other things, the distinctive lingo that arose among them. Some examples follow:

Hobo termExplanation
Accommodation carthe caboose of a train
Angellinaa young inexperienced child
Bad roada train line rendered useless by some hobo’s bad action or crime
Banjo(1) a small portable frying pan; (2) a short, “D”-handled shovel, generally used for shoveling coal
Barnaclea person who sticks to one job a year or more
Beachcombera hobo who hangs around docks or seaports
Big houseprison
Bindle sticka collection of belongings wrapped in cloth and tied around a stick
Bindlestiffa hobo who carries a bindle
Blowed-in-the-glassa genuine, trustworthy individual
‘Bothe common way one hobo referred to another: “I met that ‘bo on the way to Bangor last spring.”
Boil upspecifically, to boil one’s clothes to kill lice and their eggs; generally, to get oneself as clean as possible
Bone polishera mean dog
Bone orcharda graveyard
Bulla railroad officer
Bucka Catholic priest, good for a dollar
Burgertoday’s lunch
C, H, and Dindicates an individual is “Cold, Hungry, and Dry” (thirsty)
California blanketsnewspapers, intended to be used for bedding on a park bench
Calling inusing another’s campfire to warm up or cook
Cannonballa fast train
Carrying the bannerkeeping in constant motion so as to avoid being picked up for loitering or to keep from freezing
Catch the westboundto die
Chuck a dummypretend to faint
Cootiesbody lice
Cover with the moonsleep out in the open
Cow cratea railroad stock car
Docandoberryanything edible that grows on a riverbank
Doggin’ ittraveling by bus, especially on the Greyhound bus line
Easy marka hobo sign or mark that identifies a person or place where one can get food and a place to stay overnight
Elevatedunder the influence of drugs or alcohol
Flipto board a moving train
Flopa place to sleep, by extension, “flophouse“, a cheap hotel
Glad ragsone’s best clothes
Grease the trackto be run over by a train
Gumpa chicken[13]
Honey dippingworking with a shovel in the sewer
Hot(1) a fugitive hobo; (2) a hot or decent meal: “I could use a hot and a flop”
Hot shota train with priority freight, stops rarely, goes faster; synonym for “Cannonball”
Junglean area off a railroad where hobos camp and congregate
Jungle buzzarda hobo or tramp who preys on his own
Knowledge busa school bus used for shelter
Maevea young hobo, usually a girl
Main dragthe busiest road in a town
Moniker / Monicaa nickname
Mulligan stewa type of community stew, created by several hobos combining whatever food they have or can collect
Nickel notea five-dollar bill
On the flyjumping a moving train
Padding the hoofto travel by foot
Possum bellyto ride on the roof of a passenger car (one must lie flat, on his/her stomach, to avoid being blown off)
Pullmana railroad sleeper car; most were once made by the George Pullman company
Punkany young kid
Reefera compression or “refrigerator car
Road kida young hobo who apprentices himself to an older hobo in order to learn the ways of the road
Road stakethe small reserve amount of money a hobo may keep in case of an emergency
Rum duma drunkard
Sky pilota preacher or minister
Soup bowla place to get soup, bread and drinks
Snipescigarette butts “sniped” (e.g., from ashtrays or sidewalks)
Spare biscuitslooking for food in a garbage can
Stemmingpanhandling or begging along the streets
Tokay blanketdrinking alcohol to stay warm
Yegga traveling professional thief, or burglar

Many hobo terms have become part of common language, such as “big house”, “glad rags”, “main drag”, and others.

Hobo signs and graffiti

Key to a few hobo signs, displayed at the

National Cryptologic Museum

Mailbox at

Jimmy Carter National Historical Park

. The symbols on the post were originally drawn by hobos during the Great Depression.

Almost from the beginning of the existence of hoboes, as soon as the 1870s,[14] it has been reported that hoboes communicated with each other by way of a system of cryptic “hobo signs,” which would be chalked in prominent or relevant places to clandestinely alert future hoboes about important local information. Many listings of these symbols have been made. A few symbols include (see also photo at right):

  • A triangle with hands, signifying that the homeowner has a gun.[15]
  • A horizontal zigzag signifying a barking dog.[16]
  • A circle with two parallel arrows meaning “Get out fast,” as hobos are not welcome in the area.[16]
  • A cat signifying that a kind lady lives here.[16]

Reports of hoboes using these symbols appeared in newspapers and popular books straight through the Depression, and continue to turn up in American popular culture; for example, John Hodgman‘s book The Areas of My Expertise features a section on hobo signs listing signs found in newspapers of the day as well as several whimsical ones invented by Hodgman,[17] and the Free Art and Technology Lab released a QR Hobo Code, with a QR stenciler, in July 2011.[18] Displays on hobo signs have been exhibited in the Steamtown National Historic Site at Scranton, Pennsylvania, operated by the National Park Service, and in the National Cryptologic Museum in Annapolis Junction, Maryland,[19][20] and Webster’s Third New International Dictionary supplies a listing of hobo signs under the entry for “hobo”.[21]

Despite an apparently strong record of authentication, however, there is doubt as to whether hobo signs were ever actually in practical use by hoboes. The alternative hypothesis is that the signs were invented early on by a writer or writers seeking to add to the fantastical mythos that began to surround hoboes soon after they first appeared; this fabrication, then, was perpetuated and embellished by writers over the years, aided occasionally by hoboes willing to make up a colorful story or pose for a photo.[14] Several hoboes during the days that the signs were reportedly most in use asserted that they were in fact a “popular fancy” or “a fabrication”.[14] Nels Anderson, who both hoboed himself and studied hoboes extensively for a University of Chicago master’s thesis,[14] wrote in 1932,

Another merit of the book [Godfrey Irwin’s 1931 American Tramp and Underworld Slang] is that the author has not subscribed to the fiction that American tramps have a sign language, as so many professors are wont to believe.[22]

Though newspapers in the early and peak days of hoboing (1870s through the Depression) printed photos and drawings of hoboes leaving these signs, no known photos exist showing hobo signs found in situ where they would have served a practical purpose, leaving open the possibility that all the photographs published were staged in order to add color to the story.

Nonetheless, it is certain that hoboes have used some graffiti to communicate, in the form of “monikers” (sometimes “monicas”). These generally consisted simply of a road name (moniker), a date, and the direction the hobo was heading then. This would be written in a prominent location where other hoboes would see it. Jack London, in recounting his hobo days, wrote,

Water-tanks are tramp directories. Not all in idle wantonness do tramps carve their monicas, dates, and courses. Often and often have I met hoboes earnestly inquiring if I had seen anywhere such and such a “stiff” or his monica. And more than once I have been able to give the monica of recent date, the water-tank, and the direction in which he was then bound. And promptly the hobo to whom I gave the information lit out after his pal. I have met hoboes who, in trying to catch a pal, had pursued clear across the continent and back again, and were still going.[23]

The use of monikers persists to this day, although since the rise of cell phones a moniker is more often used simply to “tag” a train car or location. Some moniker writers have tagged train cars extensively; one who tagged under the name Bozo Texino during the 1970s and ’80s estimated that in one year (“where I went overboard”) he marked over 30,000 train cars.[24] However, not all moniker writers (or “boxcar artists”) are hoboes; Bozo Texino in fact worked for the railroad, though others such as “A No. 1” and “Palm Tree Herby” rode trains as tramps or hoboes.[24][25]

Ethical code

Hobo culture—though it has always had many points of contact with the mainstream American culture of its day—has also always been somewhat separate and distinct, with different cultural norms. Hobo culture’s ethics have always been subject to disapproval from the mainstream culture; for example, hopping freight trains, an integral part of hobo life, has always been illegal in the U.S. Nonetheless, the ethics of hobo culture can be regarded as fairly coherent and internally consistent, at least to the extent that any culture’s various individual people maintain the same ethical standards. That is to say, any attempt at an exhaustive enumeration of hobo ethics is bound to be foiled at least to some extent by the diversity of hobos and their ideas of the world. This difficulty has not kept hobos themselves from attempting the exercise. An ethical code was created by Tourist Union #63 (a hobo union created in the mid-1800s to dodge anti-vagrancy laws, which did not apply to union members)[26] during its 1889 National Hobo Convention:[27]

  1. Decide your own life; don’t let another person run or rule you.
  2. When in town, always respect the local law and officials, and try to be a gentleman at all times.
  3. Don’t take advantage of someone who is in a vulnerable situation, locals or other hobos.
  4. Always try to find work, even if temporary, and always seek out jobs nobody wants. By doing so you not only help a business along, but ensure employment should you return to that town again.
  5. When no employment is available, make your own work by using your added talents at crafts.
  6. Do not allow yourself to become a stupid drunk and set a bad example for locals’ treatment of other hobos.
  7. When jungling in town, respect handouts and do not wear them out; another hobo will be coming along who will need them as badly, if not worse than you.
  8. Always respect nature; do not leave garbage where you are jungling.
  9. If in a community jungle, always pitch in and help.
  10. Try to stay clean, and boil up wherever possible.
  11. When traveling, ride your train respectfully. Take no personal chances, cause no problems with the operating crew or host railroad; act like an extra crew member.
  12. Do not cause problems in a train yard; another hobo will be coming along who will need passage through that yard.
  13. Do not allow other hobos to molest children; expose all molesters to authorities – they are the worst garbage to infest any society.
  14. Help all runaway children, and try to induce them to return home.
  15. Help your fellow hobos whenever and wherever needed; you may need their help someday.
  16. If present at a hobo court and you have testimony, give it. Whether for or against the accused, your voice counts!



There are numerous hobo conventions throughout the United States each year. The ephemeral ways of hobo conventions are mostly dependent on the resources of their hosts. Some conventions are part of railroad conventions or “railroad days”. Others are quasi-private affairs, hosted by long-time hobos. Still others are ad hoc—that is, they are held surreptitiously on private land. Some of these conventions are held in abandoned quarries along major rivers.[citation needed]

Most non-mainstream conventions are held at current or historical railroad stops. The most notable is the National Hobo Convention held in Britt, Iowa.[citation needed] The town first hosted the Convention in 1900, but there followed a hiatus of thirty-three years. Since 1934 the Convention has been held annually in Britt, on the second weekend in August.[28]

National Hobo Convention

The Britt Hobo Museum exhibits a smattering of hobo history and lore. Initially just a “Hobo Convention” museum, in the late 1990s it evolved into a fuller Hobo History museum. LeAnn Castillo, a local artist and the hobo painter, exhibits her portrait collection of hobo kings and queens since 1900. All of her paintings are made from photos.[citation needed]

Formal entertainment at the annual Convention begins before dusk, and is provided by a mix of active hobos, extended hobo families and non-hobo wannabees. Late after dark, the crowd leaves and the campfire becomes more informal. Satellite groups spring up. Stories are told—small and tall, poetry is recited, and cants are sung to the muted vibrations of banjos, guitars and harmonicas.[citation needed]

Activities officially begin the Thursday of the convention weekend with a lighting of the campfire and exercise of some hobo cultural traditions (Honoring the Four Winds) before the opening entertainment. On Friday morning many visit the hobo-corner of the cemetery to pay tribute to those who have “Caught the Westbound”, with a hobo memorial service preceded by a local contingent of ex-military colorguard. Names of deceased hobos are recited (Roll Call). At around five o’clock on Friday afternoon a poetry reading attracts participants and a small crowd of onlookers.[citation needed]

Hobo-king candidates are screened the days before the annual King and Queen election and coronation. They are expected to have knowledge and experience in riding trains, and are evaluated for how well they would represent the hobo community. A quasi-qualified candidate is occasionally allowed to run. Any woman who is part of the hobo community may run for hobo Queen.[citation needed] On the Saturday morning there is a parade in the town pavilion, allowing onlookers to see those running for hobo king and queen in a last chance to campaign before the election in the early afternoon. Following the parade, Mulligan stew is served to hundreds of people in the city park, cooked by local Boy Scouts. In early afternoon, the hobo King and Queen are elected by means of the volume of crowd applause.[citation needed]

A carnival, flea market, and an annual auto show are also part of the festivities. There is also stock-car racing.[citation needed]

Notable persons

Notable hobos

Notables who have hoboed

In mainstream culture




  • Hobo (1992), a documentary by John T. Davis, following the life of a hobo on his travels through the United States.
  • American Experience, “Riding the Rails” (1999), a PBS documentary by Lexy Lovell and Michael Uys, narrated by Richard Thomas, detailing the hobos of the Great Depression, with interviews of those who rode the rails during those years.
  • The American Hobo (2003), a documentary narrated by Ernest Borgnine featuring interviews with Merle Haggard and James Michener.
  • The Human Experience, (2008), a documentary by Charles Kinnane. The first experience follows Jeffrey and his brother Clifford to the streets of New York City where the boys live with the homeless for a week in one of the coldest winters on record. The boys look for hope and camaraderie among their homeless companions, learning how to survive on the streets.

Fictional characters

Examples of characters based on hobos include:


Charlie Chaplin


Jackie Coogan

in The Kid, 1921



Musicians known for hobo songs include: Tim Barry, Baby Gramps, Railroad Earth, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Utah Phillips, Jimmie Rodgers, Seasick Steve, and Boxcar Willie.


Examples of hobo songs include:


  • King of the Hobos (2014), a one-man musical that premiered at Emerging Artists Theatre in New York City, is centered around the death of James Eads How, known during his lifetime as the “Millionaire Hobo”.[44]


See also


  1. “King of the Hobos”. www.brownpapertickets.com. Retrieved October 11, 2014.

Further reading

External links

  • The dictionary definition of hobo at Wiktionary
  • Media related to Hobos at Wikimedia Commons