Traveling from city to city, hobos developed a 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.
A CrossPhoto: Henry Dreyfuss / nikolasbadminton.com
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 person sat through a sermon or similar religious proselytizing.
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 SquarePhoto: Henry Dreyfuss / bLog-oMotives
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 person to person, the NSA translates this code to mean, vaguely, "OK to camp here."