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Publish at May 31 2022 Updated June 07 2022

On the trail of the Hobo Code

The secret language of the American working class in the early 21st century

"Be polite to all, but intimate with few; and choose them well before you trust them."

George Washington (1732-1799),  illustrious 18th century military officer and president of the United States.

Trusting someone is not easy, but losing someone's trust is even worse. Sharing words, chatting with someone is a form of trust due to the fact that you agree to open up to a third person by accepting communication.

But in an America of the early twentieth century, in the midst of the Great Depression, how can we exchange words in such a tormented context, where everyone is prey to the most vivid uncertainties, happily abandoning themselves to distrust and isolation? Why not create a secret language for the initiated? The Hobo code was born...

Hobo?

Before becoming a code language, the term "hobo" referred to "a homeless worker moving from town to town, most often by hiding in freight trains and living off seasonal manual labor and expediency."

The closest French interpretation would be "vagabond". Etymologically, the word "hobo" would be a contraction of "homeless" and "bohemia," but other scholars lean more toward the town of Hoboken, New Jersey, the famous starting point of many rail lines used by the vagabonds of those 1920s of the last century.

From the second half of the nineteenth century, these itinerant workers, with no real family or personal ties, waltzed around in search of work from one end of the United States to the other. They were recognized for their labor force and their ability to migrate, which distinguished them from "homeless men", tramps. Hobos are workers.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, in the 1920s, it was the start of the Great Depression. Even though industrialization and urbanization flourish in Uncle Sam's country, the country is affected by an unparalleled crisis and the workers live in misery. The Hobos moved around in the hope of improving their lives and finding work. The train being their mode of travel by predilection, the stations and the wagons become then the emblematic places of meetings and exchanges between this community.

The Hobo language

Immigrant workers without a penny, the Hobos often travel in illegality by jumping from one wagon to another. A certain solidarity is then created in this group to the point of developing a secret language, known and understood only by them, the "Hobo Code".

Based on a system of about sixty symbols, drawn with chalk or charcoal, engraved in the stone of buildings or in strategic places such as train stations or directly in the wagons, these drawings were intended to inform or warn other wanderers in order to make their itinerant life a little more comfortable.

Thus, these simple symbols, which represented for example crosses, diamonds, trains, cats, circles... could give crucial information about their travels.

Here are some examples:

1) A judge lives here

2) Good place for a helping hand

3) Here the doctor doesn't charge

4) Absentee landlord

5) Nice gentleman lives here

6) Nice lady lives here

7) Nasty dog here

8) Landlords will give to get rid of you

9) Fresh water, safe camp

10) Noisy dog here (barks a lot)


Number 8 remains a bit obscure, as "will give" to whom to get rid of the Hobos? To the Hobos themselves or to others? No precision.

There were also more common symbols such as the cross, which suggested a religious community able to provide food in exchange for a prayer, intertwined circles that represented handcuffs, so place to avoid, a triangle with hands meant an armed owner... In short, several wise hints in order to give the best places to visit along one's journey!

Jules Wanderer, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Colorado even laid out another analysis of these symbols in his 2001 article "Embodiments of Bilateral Asymmetry and Danger in Hobo Signs." For him, the logic of the Hobo Code lay in the notions of left and right spontaneously taken up by the human brain. Thus the symbols would represent places suggested as "bilateral asymmetry with directions to the right, as is the convention, preferred to those to the left." 


In conclusion, this symbolic secret language was a hit with the vagabond working class of the early twentieth century, offering an encouraging climate of confidence to a society in the midst of a rout and allowing it to move forward.

Today, the Hobo language and culture have become mythical figures in the American imagination, embodying romance, freedom, the ability to survive, but also and above all, mutual aid, so many values dear to the American nation.

So if on one of your travels you happen to pass by an old American train station, keep your eyes open, maybe you'll inadvertently stumble upon one of these mythical secret symbols of the Great Depression...


Sources and Illustrations

What is the secret language known as the "Hobo code"? Things to Know
https://www.chosesasavoir.com/langage-secret-appele-hobo-code

Hobo Symbols of the Great Depression, The Secret Language of the Itinerants, Nevedimka, 2021, Historical Photos, https://photoshistoriques.info/symboles-hobo-de-la-grande-depression-le-langage-secret-des-travailleurs-itinerants-americains/

Hobo, Wikipedia, https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hobo

Hobo signs and symbols, Ryan Somma, CC BY 2.0
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hobo_signs_and_symbols.jpg

DN-0087599, Chicago Daily News negative collection, Chicago Historical Society., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons,
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ThreeHobosChicago1929.jpg


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