Hobo Signs - Code of the Road?
Updated: Feb 12, 2022
Hobo signs are symbols that hoboes used to provide direction for others on the road. The next hobo to pass by would see the sign and know that they could find a meal at this home, or to watch out for the dishonest man who lives here. But, were these signs ever really used on the road? With the amount of attention they've gotten over the years, you would think that they must be real, but we are not so sure. Here you'll find a concise look at hobo signs. It certainly does not include every reference, or set of signs, but it is a thorough summary.
"The jail here is sanitary and prisoners are well fed." The mark inked on wood is NOT a real hobo sign. We found this sign inside of a railroad depot in an area that the public would not be allowed, and thus no hobo would ever have seen the mark. It was among many other marks left in shipping crate ink on the walls of the freight room by railroad workers. This mark is from the 1910s, but it is a worker having fun, practicing the signs he likely read about in the 1911 book Hobo-Camp-Fire-Tales, discussed later in this post. Below are other signs on the same wall.
Signs meaning "the police in this place are dead easy" (upper left, cross with closed eyes), "traveling west" (lower middle, arrow with W), and "Good people reside here and there is a cross man or bad dog here" (lower right fence post) Note that the combination of these three signs does not make sense together. Images © 2019 The Historic Graffiti Society
➸ First Mentions
Mentions of hobo signs used in Europe appear in American newspapers as early as the 1870s, right around the time that the most people were first encountering hoboes in America. Veterans of the American Civil War had been exposed to riding the rails throughout the fight and many had maintained this momentum, continuing to ride freights around the country after the war ended in 1865. The growing network of railroads in America allowed transients to reach small towns all across the country. The Panic of 1873 caused financial downturn for the next four years, pushing even more to take to the rails looking for a better stake further down the line.
➸ Mentions in the News
The story of hobo signs appears too many times in newspapers to share each one, but here are a few articles from over the years that show a variety of signs.
The Great Falls Leader, 1889
The St. Louis Star, 1910
The Bismarck Tribune, 1922
The Tennessean, 1928
The San Francisco Examiner, 1931
➸ A No. 1 - The Rambler
Leon Ray Livingston, better known by his moniker A No. 1, purported the use of hobo signs to various newspapers throughout his travels by freight train and in his 1911 book Hobo-Camp-Fire-Tales.
It should be noted that Livingston's books are generally accepted as greatly exaggerated stories, sometimes built around a grain of truth. For example, later on in Hobo-Camp-Fire-Tales he claims that he came upon eight young boys in Mercer, PA who were inspired to get inked after seeing a "tattoo freak" at the town carnival. They had rigged up a needle and stick and were about to begin tattooing one another. Livingston obliged their interest, tattooing his moniker and the date, "A No.1 - 1889" on the backs of each of their hands. He did this as revenge for the poor treatment of tramps in their town, and none of the boys seemed able to decipher the mark. In 1910, Livingston found his travels delayed due to a train wreck and wandered back into Mercer for a meal. Sitting down at a restaurant counter, he noticed that his waiter was one of the boys he had tattooed, the mark, "looking as bold and fresh as if the job had been done the day before..." Sure that he would not be recognized after so many years, Livingston inquired about the tattoo. The man angrily recounted the story, now aware that it was a hobo moniker, and told Livingston that should he ever encounter A No. 1 he should encourage him to return to visit Mercer. Three of the tattooed boys had grown up to be the sheriff, jailer, and judge in town and would see to revenge of their own if they ever crossed paths with A No. 1. Livingston quickly finished his meal and beat it out of town, vowing never to return again. Draw your own conclusions, but Livingston's writing seems heavy on entertainment and light on truth.
➸ Additional Book Mentions
In the over 50 hobo autobiographies we have read, there are no mentions of a hobo coming into a town and consulting signs. What you do read about in almost every first hand account of hoboing is word of mouth traveling up and down the rails warning of hostile towns and good places to stop.
When hobo signs do appear in books they are usually vague and from the homeowner's perspective, not from that of the hobo. The descriptions are usually, "We must have had a sign on our home since hoboes stopped nearly every day." During the height of the Great Depression there were likely over 2 million people riding the rails. It's not surprising that hoboes would have been a common occurrence in railroad towns all across America. The closest thing to specifics on signs comes in Nelson Peery's Black Fire where he writes,
"Our house, only a block from the tracks, seemed to attract every hungry hobo in the area. One of them took some chalk and marked a big E on the side of the house. When I started to scrub it off, Mom said to leave it on since it meant the men could get something to eat here. The big E stayed on the side of the house for several years."
If we are to believe Peery's account, this sign must have been tucked under an overhang of the house, or have been drawn over and over as the chalk would have washed away in the rain. His description of the big E sign does not match any set of signs put forth in our research. The Lonesome Whistle's Call by Stella E. Burns claim to be a true story on the cover, but on the interior describes the story as being "inspired by" her husband's riding the rails as a teenager. The numerous mentions of hobo signs add up to being part of the inspired sections. Throughout the story they find a cross, the sign for a friendly jungle, and one that means this farmer allows hoboes to sleep in his barn.
Jack London mentions consulting the town water tower for info in his 1907 book The Road.
"On the water-tank at San Marcial, New Mexico, a dozen years ago, was the following hobo bill of fare:
(1) Main-drag fair.
(2) Bulls not hostile.
(3) Round-house good for kipping.
(4) North-bound trains no good.
(5) Privates no good.
(6) Restaurants good for cooks only.
(7) Railroad House good for night-work only.
Number one conveys the information that begging for money on the main street is fair; number two, that the police will not bother hoboes ; number three, that one can sleep in the round-house. Number four, however, is ambiguous. The north-bound trains may be no good to beat, and they may be no good to beg. Number five means that the residences are not good to beggars, and number six means that only hoboes that have been cooks can get grub from the restaurants. Number seven bothers me. I cannot make out whether the Railroad House is a good place for any hobo to beg at night, or whether it is good only for hobo-cooks to beg at night, or whether any hobo, cook or non-cook, can lend a hand at night, helping the cooks of the Railroad House with their dirty work and getting something to eat in payment."
This might sound like hobo signs, but these descriptions do not match any set of signs except for (1) and (2). Most of them are much too obscure and specific to have ever become a sign. London, being a great descriptor of hobo culture, would likely have described or printed the signs themselves if there had been any in this instance or others throughout his travels. The information conveyed on the supports of the water tower was likely written out in words.
Throughout the years there have been newspapers and other sources which wrote that hobo signs, while exciting, were not a reality.
"Another merit of the book 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." -Nels Anderson on the book "American Tramp and Underworld Slang" by Godfrey Irwin. Anderson hoboed himself, and spent years observing and interviewing hoboes for his University of Chicago master's thesis in sociology.
"Elaborate accounts have been written in newspapers about the amount of information they give to one another in this way, and many persons believe that tramps rely on a sign language in their begging. … It is well to state at the outset that this is a false conception of their methods. …the reported puzzling signs and marks which are supposed to obviate all verbal speech are a fabrication, so far as the majority of roadsters are concerned."
-The Inter Ocean Sun 1899
Josiah Flynt took to the road, posing as a hobo in order to study the sociology of the tramp and hobo. He began publishing his findings in 1895, covering everything from how men became tramps, sexuality on the road, tactics employed in begging, and how society should deal with the tramp. In Notes of an Itinerant Policeman, published in 1900, Flynt writes:
"…hoboes do not make use of the marks and signs with which the popular fancy has credited them…"
"'A No. 1' and other old-timers writing of hobo life claim hobos have certain signs on gateposts, piles of stone, etc... This is not so. The way hobos impart information to each other is by telling each other whenever they meet just how conditions are in certain towns."
The Boston Sunday Globe, 1916
"The hobo, contrary to belief, leaves no private marks on doors, etc., where he is fed. On prominent places such as waiting rooms, water tanks, bridges, etc., he leaves his name, date and destination."
St. Louis Post Dispatch, 1919
➸ Our Thoughts & Conclusions
Here are a few observations looking at hobo signs themselves and how they've been covered over the years. Take these as such, these are opinions reached by our own reasoning and consultation of many sources.
No Real Documentation - To our knowledge, no photographs of hobo signs exist that were not staged by newspapers. Hoboes posed for newspaper articles, chalking signs, perhaps for a buck. There are images published of A No. 1's signs but these are also obviously freshly chalked for the newspaper article and he provided them direct copies of his signs as published in his books.
In our travels we've documented over 1,000 individual pieces of hobo graffiti. These marks generally contain the hobo's moniker (assumed name), the date the mark was made, and the direction of travel. For how many instances of hobo moniker marks we've found and documented, we have never come across a single hobo sign. To be fair, it's possible that since hobo signs were never meant to be permanent, they were mostly done in chalk and pencil. If exposed to the elements, marks like these would have worn away long ago. While rare, we have found chalk marks protected by overhangs that have lasted roughly 100 years, and pencil even longer, but we have never found a hobo sign.
Chicago Slim November 1910, bound South Cincinnati Slim January 1928
© 2019 The Historic Graffiti Society
Unnecessary & Confusing Signs - In our opinion, most sets contain unnecessary signs. A No. 1's set contains redundancies including "the jail here is sanitary but they starve prisoners," "the jail here is vermin infested," and "the jail here is insanitary - and from it contagious diseases are spread all over the United States." Hoboes did sometimes ask to stay overnight in the town jail in order to get out of the elements and stay warm - see sign #31. All of these signs convey that you don't want to be locked up in this town and seem like an exciting story to tell a newspaper, not a communication tool that required this level of specific detail.
Other signs obviously stand out in the less credible sets:
women at home, homeowner is home, owner is out, etc. - these could be relevant for only minutes before people arrived or left home.
trolley Stop - would hoboes ever have enough use for trolleys that they would need a sign? Wouldn't trolley stops be well marked?
you will be cursed out - sounds like the least of a hobo's worries to bother with leaving a sign.
Disagreement Among Signs - Among the many sets of signs there are numerous definitions which directly conflict with one another. Here is one example.
The most simple circle sign could mean:
(The Seward Independent, 1890)
Nothing doing or no use
(St. Louis Post Dispatch, 1911)
Good people reside here
(Hobo-Camp-Fire-Tales, A No. 1, 1911)
Bum Jane - Calls cops, hates hoboes
(The Bismarck Tribune, 1922)
Out or Get out
(The San Francisco Examiner, 1931)
Hobo signs were not the secret language of hoboes. While they definitely found a place in folklore, mainly thanks to newspapers throughout the decades, there is little to no concrete evidence to prove their existence. It is possible that a very simple set of signs (good, bad, safe, dangerous) were used by a very small minority of the traveling population, but nothing which ever took hold or was widespread. The real language of hoboes was, and is still to this day, word of mouth. Information including what towns were hostile and where a hobo could find work traveled up and down the line without the need for any signs or symbols. Perhaps the Oregon Daily Journal said it best in 1907, stating that the only secret sign is "Help Wanted," and that "It is so baffling that the average tramp never tries to fathom its depth."
Believe otherwise? Seen a hobo sign? Please let us know