So, You’re Riding the Rails: Hobo Signs and Symbols

This week travel to the Big Rock Candy Mountain in safety and security with the aid of the secret language of hobos, tramps, and (sometimes) thieves of the 19th and 20th century

The roads can be a dangerous place. Depending on when and where you’ve found yourself, this can vary from dogs to hunting packs of dinosaurs (either the traditional reptilian or reconstructed robotic ones), to, of course, disease. In search of work—or at least better weather—hundreds of thousands of transient people took to the road in the USA and Europe through the war-ravaged 19th and 20th century. 


“The coming of the tramps is a sure sign of winter. They are migratory birds that seek a genial climate in which to rest.”
Round About, El Paso Daily Herald (1897)


While most contemporary sources use the outmoded terms interchangeably, there is an important distinction between a hobo (someone who is currently homeless and looking for work) and a tramp (who is homeless and not looking for work), although both traveled either on foot or by taking advantages of railyards. Thanks to the popularization of trains during this time, any dutifully-cautious chrononaut can traverse across thousands of miles of open country with relative ease. However, no time has ever been kind to the poor, working or otherwise. To move safely from town to town can be difficult when being homeless was enough of a crime to land in prison. As a result, symbols began to crop up, left by ingenious hobos, tramps, and (sometimes) thieves as warnings and aids for fellow travelers (and any keen-eyed chrononauts). These markings, carved or chalked into walls and gate posts, deftly judging the character of the homeowners or town. Because of the symbolic nature of markings, variation in meaning exists within communities, but listed here are the most common translations of these cryptic hobo hieroglyphics.


“Tramps are appearing. They are signs of spring…No indeed! They are signs of fall–falling business, falling factories, closed doors, strike, etc. Look out.”
Home News, The County Paper (1881)


*Please note that while the general symbol is consistent, the execution can vary depending on who left the symbol, (e.g. any image resembling a ‘cat’ will represent a friendly women)



All Hobo Symbols as PNGs