A hobo is a migratory worker or homeless vagabond, especially one who's impoverished. The term originated in the Western—probably Northwestern—United States around 1890. Unlike a "tramp", who works only when forced to, and a "bum", who doesn't work at all, a "hobo" is a travelling 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. Liberman points out that a large number of folk etymologies fail to reply the question: "Why did the word become widely known in California (just there) by the early Nineties (just then)?" Author Todd DePastino has suggested it might be derived from the term hoe-boy meaning "farmhand", or a greeting such as Ho, boy! 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". It could additionally 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 migratory laborer; he might take a few longish holidays, but soon or late he returns to work. A tramp never works if it can be avoided; he simply travels. Lower than either is the bum, who neither works nor travels, save when impelled to motion by the police.
It is unclear exactly when hobos first appeared on the American railroading scene. With the end of the American Civil War in the 1860s, a large number of 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 nineteenth 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 U.S. population). 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.
The number of hobos increased greatly throughout the Great Depression era of the 1930s. With no work and no prospects at home, a large number of 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 a large number of train crews, they faced the railroads' security staff, nicknamed bulls, who had a reputation of violence against trespassers. 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.
According to Ted Conover in Rolling Nowhere (1984), as a large number of 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.
Expressions used through the 1940s
|Accommodation car||the caboose of a train|
|Angellina||a young inexperienced child|
|Bad Road||a train line rendered useless by a few hobo's bad action or crime|
|Banjo||(1) a small portable frying pan; (2) a short, "D" handled shovel, generally used for shovelling coal|
|Barnacle||a person who sticks to one job a year or more|
|Beachcomber||a hobo who hangs around docks or seaports|
|Bindle stick||a collection of belongings wrapped in cloth and tied around a stick|
|Bindlestiff||a hobo who carries a bindle|
|Blowed-in-the-glass||a genuine, trustworthy individual|
|'Bo||the common way one hobo referred to another: "I met that 'Bo on the way to Bangor last spring."|
|Boil Up||specifically, to boil one's clothes to kill lice and their eggs; generally, to get oneself as clean as possible|
|Bone polisher||a mean dog|
|Bone orchard||a graveyard|
|Bull||a railroad officer|
|Buck||a Catholic priest, good for a dollar|
|C, H, and D||indicates an individual is Cold, Hungry, and Dry (thirsty)|
|California blankets||newspapers, intended to be used for bedding on a park bench|
|Calling in||using another's campfire to warm up or cook|
|Cannonball||a fast train|
|Carrying the banner||keeping in constant motion so as to avoid being picked up for loitering or to keep from freezing|
|Catch the Westbound||to die|
|Chuck a dummy||pretend to faint|
|Cover with the moon||sleep out in the open|
|Cow crate||a railroad stock car|
|Docandoberry||anything that grows on the side of a river that's edible|
|Doggin' it||traveling by bus, especially on the Greyhound bus line|
|Easy mark||a hobo sign or mark that identifies a person or 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, by extension, "Flophouse", a cheap hotel|
|Glad rags||one's best clothes|
|Grease the track||to be run over by a train|
|Honey dipping||working with a shovel in the sewer|
|Hot||(1) a fugitive hobo; (2) a decent meal: "I could use three hots and a flop"|
|Hot Shot||a train with priority freight, stops rarely, goes faster; synonym for "Cannonball"|
|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|
|Main drag||the busiest road in a town|
|Moniker / Monica||a nickname|
|Mulligan||a type of community stew, created by several hobos combining whatever food they have or can collect|
|Nickel note||a five-dollar bill|
|On the fly||jumping a moving train|
|Padding the hoof||to travel by foot|
|Possum belly||to ride on the roof of a passenger car (one must lie flat, on their stomach, to avoid being blown off)|
|Pullman||a railroad sleeper car; most were made by George Pullman company|
|Punk||any young kid|
|Reefer||a compression or "refrigerator car"|
|Road kid||a young hobo who apprentices himself to an older hobo in order to learn the ways of the road|
|Road stake||the small amount of money a hobo might have in case of an emergency|
|Rum dum||a drunkard|
|Sky pilot||a preacher or minister|
|Soup bowl||a place to get soup, bread and drinks|
|Snipes||cigarette butts "sniped" (e.g., in ashtrays)|
|Spare biscuits||looking for food in garbage can|
|Stemming||panhandling or begging along the streets|
|Tokay blanket||drinking alcohol to stay warm|
|Yegg||a travelling 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 (symbols)
To cope with the uncertainties of hobo life, hobos developed a system of symbols, or a visual code. Hobos would write this code with chalk or coal to provide directions, information, and warnings to others in "the brotherhood". A symbol would indicate "turn right here", "beware of hostile railroad police", "dangerous dog", "food available here", and so on. Some commonly used signs:
- A cross signifies "angel food", that is, food served to the hobos after a sermon.
- A triangle with hands signifies that the homeowner has a gun.
- A horizontal zigzag signifies a barking dog.
- A square missing its top line signifies it is safe to camp in that location.
- A top hat and a triangle signify wealth.
- A spearhead signifies a warning to defend oneself.
- A circle with two parallel arrows means get out fast, as hobos aren't welcome in the area.
- Two interlocked circles signify handcuffs (i.e. hobos are hauled off to jail).
- A caduceus symbol signifies the house has a doctor living in it.
- A cross with a smiley face in one of the corners means the doctor at this office will treat hobos free of charge.
- A cat signifies a kind lady lives here.
- A wavy line (signifying water) above an X means fresh water and a campsite.
- Three diagonal lines mean it's not a safe place.
- A square with a slanted roof (signifying a house) with an X through it means that the house has already been "burned" or "tricked" by another hobo and isn't a trusting house.
- Two shovels signify that work was available (shovels, because most hobos performed manual labor).
Another version of the hobo code exists as a display in the Steamtown National Historic Site at Scranton, Pennsylvania, operated by the National Park Service. There is an exhibit of hobo codes at the National Cryptologic Museum in Annapolis Junction, Maryland.
An ethical code was created by Tourist Union #63 throughout its 1889 National Hobo Convention in St. Louis Missouri. This code was voted upon as a concrete set of laws to govern the Nationwide Hobo Body; it reads this way:
- Decide your own life, don't let another person run or rule you.
- When in town, always respect the local law and officials, and try to be a gentleman at all times.
- Don't take advantage of someone who's in a vulnerable situation, locals or additional hobos.
- 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.
- When no employment is available, make your own work by using your added talents at crafts.
- Do not allow yourself to become a stupid drunk and set a bad example for locals' treatment of additional hobos.
- When jungling in town, respect handouts, don't wear them out, another hobo will be coming along who'll need them as badly, if not worse than you.
- Always respect nature, don't leave garbage where you're jungling.
- If in a community jungle, always pitch in and help.
- Try to stay clean, and boil up wherever possible.
- When traveling, ride your train respectfully, take no personal chances, cause no problems with the operating crew or host railroad, act like an additional crew member.
- Do not cause problems in a train yard, another hobo will be coming along who'll need passage through that yard.
- Do not allow additional hobos to molest children, expose all molesters to authorities, they're the worst garbage to infest any society.
- Help all runaway children, and try to induce them to return home.
- Help your fellow hobos whenever and wherever needed, you might need their help someday.
- 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 and the 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're held surreptitiously on private land. Some of these conventions are held in abandoned quarries, along major rivers.
Most non-mainstream conventions are held at current or historical railroad stops. The most notable is the National Hobo Convention held in Britt, Iowa. The town first hosted the Convention in 1900, but there then followed a hiatus of 33 years. Since 1934 the Convention has been held annually in Britt, on the second weekend in August.
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 after 1900. All of her paintings are made from photos—even current kings and queens. Most hobos can't sit still long enough to have a portrait painted. None has been painted live.
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.
Activities officially begin the Thursday of the convention weekend with a lighting of the campfire and exercise of a few hobo cultural traditions (Honoring the Four Winds) before the opening entertainment. On Friday morning a large number of 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.
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's part of the hobo community might run for hobo Queen. On the Saturday morning there's 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.
A carnival, flea market, and an annual auto show are additionally part of the festivities. There is additionally stock-car racing.
- Jack Black (author)
- Charles Elmer Fox, author of Tales of an American Hobo (Singular Lives) (1989) ISBN 978-0-87745-251-5
- Maurice W. Graham, a.k.a. "Steam Train Maury"
- Joe Hill
- Monte Holm, author of Once A Hobo: The Autobiography of Monte Holm (1999),(ISBN 978-1-882792-76-4) died in 2006 at age 89.
- Leon Ray Livingston, a.k.a. "A No.1"
- The Leatherman
- Harry McClintock
- Utah Phillips
- Robert Joseph Silveria, Jr., a.k.a. "Sidetrack", who killed 34 additional hobos before turning himself in to the authorities
- T-Bone Slim
- Bertha Thompson, a.k.a. "Boxcar Bertha", was widely believed to be a real person. Sister of the Road was penned by Ben Reitman and presented as an autobiography.
- Jim Tully, an author who penned several pulp fiction books, 1928 through 1945.
- Steven Gene Wold, a.k.a. "Seasick Steve"
Notables who have hoboed
In mainstream culture
Examples of characters based on hobos include:
Examples of hobo songs include: