What kinds of hobo signs and hobo codes have been used over the years? Have you ever used an emoji in place of words in a text to communicate something quickly to your friends? A pizza slice emoji, for example, to indicate how pumped you are about the pizza you're getting with them later? Well, you have more in common with a hobo than you might think.
No offense intended: unlike calling someone a "tramp" or a "bum," the word "hobo" is associated with traveling workers. A bum doesn't work at all; a tramp will only work if forced to do so. A hobo, on the other hand, is a semi-respectable figure of the American underground that emerged in large numbers around the mid-to-late 19th century. Traveling from city to city, hobos developed an emoji-like visual code to help keep each other safe, often marking buildings with chalk or coal. Hobo symbols would indicate, for example, that it's safe to camp nearby, or that nice, generous people live inside. These hobo codes helped migrant workers deal with the often dangerous uncertainties they would face on the road. So what do these mysterious symbols mean? Here's a look at some symbols hobos would have encountered during their travels.
Hungry hobos were excited to see this sign... if they were willing to engage in a little religious small talk. This common symbol meant that a meal was on the way as long as the hobo sat through a sermon or similar religious proseltyzing. Free food earned this way was known in the hobo community as "angel food."
A Triangle with Hands
The comical image of a triangle with its hands up in a "Don't shoot!" pose meant serious business in the hobo community. If this symbol was scrawled on a house it meant the homeowner was packing heat. It is unclear if the symbol indicated a threat: the NSA interprets this symbol to simply mean "man with gun lives here."
A Horizontal Zigzag
If a traveling worker spotted this odd scrawl on a house (or nearby utility pole) it was a safe bet that a barking dog was nearby. Hobos looking to sleep on the sly in an outbuilding would have a rough time if a notoriously loud pooch was on patrol.
An Incomplete Square
Hobos spotting this symbol could look forward to a safe camping spot for the night. While the definition of both "safe" and "camping" surely varied from hobo to hobo, the NSA translates this code to mean, vaguely, "OK to camp here."