Weird History

How Historical Hobo Practices Have Changed Over Time  

Mel Judson
86.8k views 13 items

The rich and diverse hobo history of America started in the mid-to-late 1800s and continues even today. As Civil War veterans returned to everyday society, many set off on trains looking for work as the country rebuilt itself. Decades later, the Great Depression expanded these practices and economic needs to travel for work, increasing the number of vagrant workers who moved across America in search of income and new lifestyle opportunities. According to Todd DePastino, the author of Citizen Hobo: How a Century of Homelessness Shaped America, that's when the image of the hobo was fixed in the American consciousness.

The hobo lifestyle is still intact in modern times, though it has changed over the years. Today's homeless individuals tend to skew younger than their historical counterparts - and their motivations and practices often extend far beyond economic disparity. Although many hobo practices that developed during the early 20th century are still used, modern hobo culture has adapted alongside American society, thanks in part to technology and changing forms of communication.

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Hobos Wrote Each Other Secret Messages

Hobo codes involved a system of cryptic symbols developed during the late 1800s as the primary form of communication between traveling workers. As America had higher levels of illiteracy during the early 20th century and the Great Depression, the use of symbols written on rail yards and public areas allowed migrants to travel safely and effectively.

The creation of road symbols is not unique to American hobos and can be seen among various migrant communities. Road symbols in Romani culture created a universal language for travelers of different cultural and linguistic backgrounds.

Although regional variations of hobo codes are still practiced, the historical and universal hobo codes have mostly fallen out of use with today’s collective body of travelers; modern hobo culture primarily relies on digital communication.

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Modern Hobos Typically Travel With A Smartphone 

Traveling today is much easier thanks to technology and digital communication. Modern hobos typically carry smartphones - and occasionally computers - on their travels, taking advantage of free WiFi in coffee shops and public libraries. Online forums and Facebook groups allow vagabonds to share traveling information and safety tips that differ from city to city.

Warchalking - symbols drawn in public places that indicate free WiFi - is technically a modern adaptation of the hobo code.

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Hobos Still Have Their Own Lingo

In addition to cryptology, verbal terminology is still used among contemporary hobos. The use of lingo to differentiate vagabonds from outsiders is a historical practice that seemingly dates back to the 18th-century 'thieves' cant' - a type of slang language used by criminals. But hobo lingo has changed dramatically over time.

For vagrants, words and phrases are used to help differentiate between a well-seasoned train hopper and a newcomer. Hobo lingo like "greenhorns" (inexperienced train hoppers), "gutter punks" (transients who follow punk ideology/anarchism), and crusties (less hygienic gutter punks) help to create a distinction between traveling individuals.

One common label hobos use is "trustafarian," a word to describe an individual that claims to live an authentic traveler's lifestyle despite having a great deal of money.

The National Hobo Convention Is Still Held

Although many formal hobo organizations, like the National Hobo Association, have shuttered, the National Hobo Convention remains America's most infamous party for perpetual nomads. Taking place in Britt, Iowa, since 1900, this annual, weekend-long event has maintained its reputation as the primary gathering spot and celebration of hobos and working travelers. The National Hobo Convention continues to draw many participants, and even crowns a Queen and King of the Hobos during each fair.

There are numerous other get-togethers and festivals across America that vagrants and non-vagrants attend, such as the regional Rainbow Gatherings and Anarchist Book Fairs.