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Two hoboes, one carrying a bindle, walking along railroad tracks after being put off a train (c. 1880s–1930s)

A hobo is a migrant worker in the United States.[1][2] Hoboes, tramps, and bums are generally regarded as related, but distinct: a hobo travels and is willing to work; a tramp travels, but avoids work if possible; a bum neither travels nor works.[3][4]


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.[2] The term has also been dated to 1889 in the Western—probably NorthwesternUnited States,[5] and to 1888.[6] 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)?"[2] Author Todd DePastino mentions possible derivations from "hoe-boy", meaning "farmhand", or a greeting "Ho, boy", but that he does not find these convincing.[7] Bill Bryson suggests in Made in America (1998) that it might come from the railroad greeting, "Ho, beau!" or a syllabic abbreviation of "homeward bound".[8] It could also come from the words "homeless boy" or "homeless Bohemian". H. L. Mencken, in his The American Language (4th ed., 1937), wrote:

Tramps and hobos are commonly lumped together, but in their own sight they are sharply differentiated. A hobo or bo is simply a migratory laborer; he may take some 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.[9]


Two men riding underneath a freight train, 1894

While there have been drifters in every society, the term became common only after the broad adoption of railroads provided free, though illegal, travel by hopping aboard train cars. With the end of the American Civil War in the 1860s, many discharged veterans returning home began to hop 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.[10]

The number of hoboes increased greatly during the Great Depression era of the 1930s.[11] With no work and no prospects at home, many decided to try their luck elsewhere by freight train.

Hobo life was dangerous. Itinerant, poor, far from home and support, hoboes also faced the hostility of many train crews and the railroad police, nicknamed "bulls", who often dealt violently with trespassers.[12] British poet W. H. Davies, author of The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp, lost a foot when he fell under the wheels trying to jump aboard a train. It was easy to get trapped between cars, and one could freeze to death in cold weather. When freezer cars were loaded at an ice factory, any hobo inside was likely to be killed.[13]

Around the end of World War II, railroads began to move from steam to diesel locomotives, making jumping freight trains more difficult. This, along with postwar prosperity, led to a decline in the number of hoboes. In the 1970s and 1980s 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 hoboes.[14][15]


Expressions used through the 1940s[edit]

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

Hobo term Explanation
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
Big house prison
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
Bullets beans
Buck a Catholic priest, good for a dollar
Burger today's lunch
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
Cooties body lice
Cover with the moon sleep out in the open
Cow crate a railroad stock car
Crumbs lice
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
Graybacks lice
Grease the track to be run over by a train
Gump a chicken[16]
Honey dipping working 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 shot a train with priority freight, stops rarely, goes faster; synonym for "Cannonball"
Jungle an area off a railroad where hoboes 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 stew a type of community stew, created by several hoboes 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

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

Hobo signs and graffiti[edit]

1920s guide to a supposed traditional beggar's code in France
1. Poor unwelcome, disagreeable people. 2. Danger. 3. Beware of prison. 4. Nothing doing. 5. Eats. 6. Can get anything by threatening. 7. Do not threaten the people in the house. 8. Take vengeance. 9. Might give in. 10. Look out for the dog. 11. Brutal owner. 12. Money given here. 13. Men and dogs ready to attack. 14. Woman alone with child or servant. 15. Hard luck stories are profitable. 16. Charity given. 17. Insist and they'll give in. 18. Talk religion

Almost from the beginning of the existence of hoboes, as early as the 1870s,[17] it was reported that they 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:

  • A triangle with hands, signifying that the homeowner has a gun.[18]
  • A horizontal zigzag signifying a barking dog.[19]
  • A circle with two parallel arrows meaning "Get out fast," as hoboes are not welcome in the area.[19]
  • A cat signifying that a kind lady lives here.[19]

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,[20] and the Free Art and Technology Lab released a QR Hobo Code, with a QR stenciler, in July 2011.[21] 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,[22][23] and Webster's Third New International Dictionary supplies a listing of hobo signs under the entry for "hobo".[24]

Mailbox at Jimmy Carter National Historical Park. The symbols on the post were originally drawn by hoboes during the Great Depression.

Despite an apparently strong record of authentication, however, there is doubt as to whether hobo signs were ever actually in practical use by hoboes. They may simply have been invented early on by a writer or writers seeking to add to the folklore surrounding hoboes soon after they acquired the name, an invention perpetuated and embellished by others over the years, aided occasionally by amenable hoboes themselves.[17] 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".[17] Nels Anderson, who both hoboed himself and studied hoboes extensively for a University of Chicago master's thesis,[17] 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.[25]

Though newspapers in the early and peak days of hoboing (1870s through the Depression) printed photos and drawings of hoboes leaving these signs, these may have been 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.[26]

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.[27] 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.[27][28]

Ethical code[edit]

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 hoboes and their ideas of the world. This difficulty has not kept hoboes 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)[29] during its 1889 National Hobo Convention:[30]

  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 hoboes.
  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 hoboes.
  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 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 hoboes 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 hoboes 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 quasi-private affairs hosted by long-time hoboes; still others surreptitious affairs on private land, as 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.[31]

Notable persons[edit]

Notable hoboes[edit]

  • Jack Black, author of You Can't Win (1926) OCLC 238829961
  • Maurice W. Graham, a.k.a. "Steam Train Maury"
  • Joe Hill
  • Leon Ray Livingston, a.k.a. "A No.1"
  • Harry McClintock
  • Utah Phillips
  • Robert Joseph Silveria Jr., a.k.a. "Sidetrack", serial killer with 34 victims.
  • 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"

Notable persons who have hoboed[edit]

In mainstream culture[edit]




  • 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 hoboes 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[edit]

Examples of characters based on hoboes include:


Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan in The Kid, 1921



Musicians known for hobo songs include: Tim Barry, Baby Gramps, Railroad Earth, Harry McClintock, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Utah Phillips, Jimmie Rodgers, Seasick Steve, and Boxcar Willie.[citation needed]


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".[46]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Hoboes" from the Encyclopedia of Chicago
  2. ^ a b c "On Hobos, Hautboys, and Other Beaus". OUPblog. Oxford University Press. November 12, 2008. Retrieved August 5, 2009.
  3. ^ Murray, Thomas E. (1992). "A New Look at the Folk Speech of American Tramps". Western Folklore. 51 (3/4). Western States Folklore Society: 287–302. doi:10.2307/1499777. JSTOR 1499777.
  4. ^ "#TBT - Hobos, Bums, Tramps: How Our Terminology of Homeless Has Changed". National Coalition for the Homeless. June 14, 2018.
  5. ^ "On the road again". Grammarphobia Blog. July 25, 2009. Archived from the original on May 5, 2012.
  6. ^ Hobo Merriam-Webster. Retrieved November 16, 2021.
  7. ^ Interview with Todd DePastino, author of Citizen Hobo: How a Century of Homelessness Shaped America from the University of Chicago Press website
  8. ^ Bryson, Bill (1998). Made in America. Transworld Publishers Limited. 161. ISBN 978-0380713813.
  9. ^ Mencken, H.L. (2000). The American Language: An Inquiry Into the Development of English in the United States. Knopf (published 2006). ISBN 978-0394400754 – via Google Books.
  10. ^ The New York Telegraph: "What Tramps Cost Nation", page D2. The Washington Post, June 18, 1911.
  11. ^ "Virginia.edu" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on October 17, 2012. Retrieved May 7, 2013.
  12. ^ Mathers, Michael H. (1973). Riding the Rails. Boston: Gambit. p. 30. ISBN 0876450788. OCLC 757486.
  13. ^ "Life and Times of an American Hobo". Allvoices. September 21, 2010. Archived from the original on October 13, 2012. Retrieved November 1, 2015.
  14. ^ "Still Riding the Rails: Life as a Modern Hobo". HowStuffWorks. February 11, 2016.
  15. ^ MacGregor, Jeff; Schukar, Alyssa (May 2019). "The Last of the Great American Hobos". Smithsonian Magazine.
  16. ^ Bruns, Roger (1980). Knights of the Road: A Hobo History. New York: Methuen Inc. p. 201. ISBN 041600721X.
  17. ^ a b c d Wray, Mike; Wray, Charlie (2018). "Hobo Signs: Code of the Road?". Historic Graffiti Society. Retrieved February 25, 2020.
  18. ^ Moon, Gypsy: "Done and Been", p. 198. Indiana University Press, 1996.
  19. ^ a b c Moon, Gypsy: "Done and Been", p. 24. Indiana University Press, 1996.
  20. ^ Hodgman, John. (2006). The areas of my expertise : an almanac of complete world knowledge compiled with instructive annotation and arranged in useful order ... (Riverhead trade pbk. ed.). New York: Riverhead. ISBN 978-1594482229. OCLC 70672414.
  21. ^ "QR Code Stencil Generator and QR Hobo Codes". F.A.T., Free Art and Technology Lab. July 19, 2011. Retrieved July 18, 2012.
  22. ^ Rothstein, Edward (August 1, 2014). "Security Secrets, Dated but Real". The New York Times. Retrieved August 2, 2014.
  23. ^ "National Cryptological Museum – Virtual Tour". Retrieved October 5, 2010.
  24. ^ Webster's third new international dictionary of the English language, unabridged. Gove, Philip Babcock. Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster. 1993. ISBN 0877792011. OCLC 27936328.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  25. ^ Anderson, Nels (March 1932). "American Tramp and Underworld Slang. Godfrey Irwin (book review)". American Journal of Sociology. 37 (5): 842. doi:10.1086/215902.
  26. ^ London, Jack (2005) [1907]. The Road. Project Gutenberg.
  27. ^ a b Daniel, Bill. Who Is Bozo Texino? (documentary). Self-published: billdaniel.net, 2005.
  28. ^ Wray, Mike; Wray, Charlie (2018). "Moniker: Mark of the Tramp". Historic Graffiti Society. Retrieved February 25, 2020.
  29. ^ "Iowa's Hobo Convention". www.mentalfloss.com. January 21, 2014. Retrieved December 20, 2019.
  30. ^ "Hobo Code". National Hobo Museum. Archived from the original on July 24, 2011. Retrieved April 20, 2014.
  31. ^ Lammle, Rob (January 21, 2014). "Strange States: Iowa's Hobo Convention". Mental Floss. Retrieved November 1, 2015.
  32. ^ "Tucson Citizen Morgue". Tucsoncitizen.com. April 6, 2009. Retrieved May 7, 2013.
  33. ^ "Louis L'amour: A brief biography". louislamour.com. Retrieved December 7, 2008.
  34. ^ Niven, Frederick (1927). Wild Honey. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company.
  35. ^ "Bob Nolan". AllMusic.
  36. ^ "Down and Out in Paris and London". Archived from the original on October 10, 2012. Retrieved December 7, 2012.
  37. ^ Van Ronk, Dave. The Mayor of MacDougal Street. 2005.
  38. ^ "Dale Wasserman, 94; Playwright Created 'Man of La Mancha'" obituary by Dennis McLellan of the Los Angeles Times, printed in The Washington Post December 29, 2008.
  39. ^ Leeflang, Gerard (1984). American Travels of a Dutch Hobo, 1923–1926. Iowa State University Press. ISBN 978-0813808888.
  40. ^ "The Great Depression – The Story of 250,000 Teenagers Who Left Home and Ride the Rails". Erroluys.com. 1933. Archived from the original on May 5, 2013. Retrieved May 7, 2013.
  41. ^ Thrilling Detective Heroes, John Locke & John Wooley, eds. (Silver Spring, MD: Adventure House, 2007)
  42. ^ "Series List".
  43. ^ "Here Comes Your Man". Frankblack.net. Retrieved May 7, 2013.
  44. ^ Hobo Bill's Last Ride by Jimmie Rodgers (1929) on YouTube
  45. ^ Waiting for a Train by Jimmie Rodgers (1928) on YouTube
  46. ^ "King of the Hobos". www.brownpapertickets.com. Retrieved October 11, 2014.
  47. ^ "HOOP DREAMS". Chicago Tribune. October 26, 1995.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

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