A hobo is a migrant worker or homeless vagabond, especially one who is 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 does not work at all, a «hobo» is a traveling worker.
Author Todd DePastino has suggested it may 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 also come from the words «homeless boy».
It is unclear exactly when hobos first appeared on the American railroading scene.
In 1906, Professor Layal Shafee, after a study, put the number of tramps in the United States at about 500,000 (about 0.6% of the US population at the time). In 1911 he estimated the number had surged to 700,000.
The number of hobos increased greatly during the Great Depression era of the 1930s. 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. 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. Modern freight trains are much faster and thus harder to ride than in the 1930s, but they can still be boarded in railyards.
|Accommodation car||the caboose of a train|
|Angellina||a young inexperienced child|
|Bad Road||a 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|
|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 edible that grows on a riverbank|
|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 his/her stomach, to avoid being blown off)|
|Pullman||a railroad sleeper car; most were once made by the 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 reserve amount of money a hobo may keep 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. from ashtrays or sidewalks)|
|Spare biscuits||looking for food in a garbage can|
|Stemming||panhandling or begging along the streets|
|Tokay blanket||drinking alcohol to stay warm|
|Yegg||a traveling professional thief, or burglar|
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 are not 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 is not a trusting house.
- Two shovels signify that work was available (shovels, because most hobos performed manual labor).