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Hobos

Updated on July 24, 2016

There have always been ambivalent feelings about the American hobo. Both a romanticized figment of the country's imagination and an integral part of American society, the hobo established its own unique culture. The word "hobo" was first coined in the 1800's when after the Civil War a depressed economy and hard times had people taking to the rails in search of work and a better life. Back then they were called "hoe boys" carrying a hoe and shovel with them in the hopes of getting farm work. As time when on, the number of hobos acted as an economic indicator. When times were bad, men (and boys) would become riders of the rails.


THE HISTORY -

"The gentlemen of the road" experienced their Golden Age with the onset of the Great Depression which started on BlackTuesday, October 29, 1929. It is believed that at one time there were over a million and a half hobos riding the freights, many displaced white collar workers. By the turn of the 20th century, railroads had grown and stretched from the industrialized east to the unsettled west offering opportunity to the traveler seeking a paycheck.

The hobo lifestyle remained outside of mainstream society. They developed a cultural uniqueness and were seen not only as jobless men but as an icon of freedom in what was then a structured American society. Hobos were essential to the economic and industrial landscape of that time. They would fill a necessary role in the labor force as reserves and would easily adapt to the ever changing circumstances. When they were no longer needed they would hop the trains and move on.

Eventually the economy began to recover and the railroads consolidated and became more streamlined. Trains made longer hauls without stopping and the employment gap was filled by more permanent workers. For the hobo, it signalled the end of an era. For America, the idealized image of the carefree train rider lives on.


THE JUNGLES -

During the greatest heyday of hobo history, hobo "jungles" sprang up along the railroad tracks. These were transient shanty towns where hobos could set up tents and build campfires for cooking. Everyone would bring whatever food they had and meals were prepared and shared. The hobo jungles were generally accepted by the rest of the population as long as they stayed on the outskirts of towns and cities. It was here that the traveller would rest and enjoy community before setting off to hop the next train.


THE SYMBOLS -

American hobos developed their own system of symbols to communicate with one another. Sometimes called the secret language of the hobos, the symbols were used to let others know what lies ahead. With chalk, coal or paint, travellers would scratch warnings and information on walls, posts, fences and sidewalks. Some would point to friendly camping areas or warn of barking dogs. It was just another way the "knights of the railways" would look out for one another. Here is a link to some common hobo symbols - http://www.geocities.com/ctesibos/symbols/hobo.html


THE TERMINOLOGY -

Like the symbols, hobos created their own set of terms they all understood. It was part of their individual culture yet some of the terms carried on into mainstream society. Here are some examples -

HOTSHOT - a train with high priority over other traffic

BULL - railroad security man

SNAKE - railroad switchman

POWER - the engines that power the train

REEFER - refridgerated boxcar

BINDLE STIFF - a hobo who carries a bundle (usually on a stick) with personal possessions

YEGGS - burglars or criminals

CRUMBS - lice

CATCH OUT - to hop a freight train

Here's a link to a complete list of hobo terminology - http://www.angelfire.com/folk/famoustramp/terminology.html


THE ART -

Though most hobos were not artistically trained, they managed to produce both items of whimsy and usefulness. Referred to in this day as folk art or tramp art, hobos would take what society discarded and turn it into art. Often this was done by whittling scraps of wood into toy trains or simple whistles. Because they travelled a lot and did not stay in one place for very long, much of the art work they left behind is undocumented. Yet collectors still covet the serviceable mug made from a tin can or the bit of art work left on the side of a fruit crate.


THE MUSIC -

As with all music, hobo music reflected the times and their experiences as freight hoppers. Their lifestyle was intertwined with folk song and other American roots music. But also present was an awareness of the labor movement and social activism. The era spawned leftwing musicians such as Woody Guthrie and Huddie (Leadbelly) Ledbetter. Of course hundreds of songs have been written and performed about the hobo culture. Here is a list of just some of the songs written about hobos. - http://www.the9513.com/20-songs-about-hobos/


THE FOOD -

It was common in the hobo jungles to always have a huge pot of boiling water over the campfire. Weary travellers would bring what they had - a few potatoes, carrots, herbs and meat acquired in the course of the day. All would be added to the pot and a nutritious stew resulted. Corn bread was also a popular staple and was made in a cast iron pan. Beans of all kinds were plentiful and were eaten alone or mixed in soup or stew.


THE FAMOUS PEOPLE WHO HOBOED -

Jack Black - http://www.ralphmag.org/jack-blackZK.html

Woody Guthrie

Burl Ives

Harry McClintock - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_McClintock

Jack London

Jack Kerouac

Joe Hill - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joe_Hill

Louis L'Amour

Robert Mitchum

John Steinbeck

George Orwell

Jack Dempsey

James Michener

Jim Tully - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jim_Tully

W.H. Davies

Rod McKuen

There are more, of course. Some hoboed for a short period of their lives. Others adapted and adopted the lifestyle.


THE NEW HOBO -

Though nothing compares to the cultural era of the 1930s hobo existence, modern day hobos still ride the rails. The glory days of freight trains has long passed in the American landscape but there still remains a loyal lot of hobo travellers whose passion is to move on. They wait for the trains to slow down then hop into empty cars. They stop for short periods to work in fields such as carpentry, farm work and other jobs. They design crafts and arts and sell them from town to town. It is a dangerous lifestyle and the hobo way is not for everyone.


THE DIFFERENCES -

HOBO - Hop trains and travel for work.

TRAMP - Travel not necessarily by train. Look for work or may panhandle.

BUM - Bums rarely travel and don't work. They beg.

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    • grand old lady profile image

      Mona Sabalones Gonzalez 9 months ago from Philippines

      The one thing I remember about hoboes is the cartoon version of a man with a stick and his clothes bundled in a piece of cloth at the end of the stick. It is very nice to know more about hoboes through your article.

    • suziecat7 profile image
      Author

      suziecat7 3 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Thanks, Mel.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 3 years ago from San Diego California

      Interesting that Steinbeck "hoboed." One of his books "East of Eden" deals partly with that subject. I wonder if he did it as research. Great hub!

    • Petra Newman profile image

      Petra Newman 4 years ago

      Hi Suziecat7; What a great hub. I always think a hobo's life is something like a gypsie. I would love to hear the tales they could tell of their adventures. Thanks for sharing. I learned something new as well.

      good stuff:) I voted this one up.

    • suziecat7 profile image
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      suziecat7 5 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Thanks all. I enjoy history so it was a pleasure to write.

    • CriticalMessage profile image

      Murphy 5 years ago from Chicagoland, Illinois

      I love this Hub !... Having been referred to as a Gypsy most of my adult life?,,, I can relate to this very well indeed... Gypsy's in possession of many similar traits as the Hobo... Gypsy's less dependant on the train..

      A great representation here of an awesome topic that in itself, is full of mystery, and wonder... thumbs up!

    • 50 Caliber profile image

      50 Caliber 5 years ago from Arizona

      Suziecat, I grew up in a mining town and the train dead ended there and as a kid we saw them walking up the streets. Often they came and left, one particular man had a leather bag and it was full of polished stones, he gave me a stone as he stopped at the fence every time he was in town. I still have some but no idea how he came to have them. I guess they rode in and worked at the mine and rode out.

      Great hub with much info.

      Thanks,

      50

    • Rock_nj profile image

      John Coviello 5 years ago from New Jersey

      In my next life, I want to be a Hobo! :-) I have always loved trains and have been fascinated by Hobos; although the reality is that they live very dangerous lives. Hobo terminology is truly fascinating. Thanks for including it in this excellent Hub!

    • suziecat7 profile image
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      suziecat7 5 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Thanks, everyone.

      Bogtrotter - Your grandmother lived in that era and her stories must have been fascinating. Thanks for reaing.

    • profile image

      bogtrotter 5 years ago

      Fascinating subject! Thank you for all the details. My grandmother (1895-1992) loved to tell stories about growing up in both rural & urban New England. While living in New London, CT in the early 1930's she told of the hobos or tramps that were a common site as she lived near a railyard. On another note the late national news commentator Eric Severide "rode the rails" as a young man. Older readers would remember him for his gutsy journalism.

    • profile image

      Barb J 6 years ago

      Have been going to the National Hobo Convention since 1997, have met some very nice people there.. Sad thing is so many of the elders have passed away..

    • mslizzee profile image

      elizabeth 6 years ago from Buncombe County, NC

      Fascinating.

    • suziecat7 profile image
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      suziecat7 6 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Gr82bme- Though it was never easy, it is far more difficult and dangerous today. Thanks for your comment.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for a fascinating hub. I knew nothing about the hobo culture before reading your hub, or what the word “hobo” really meant.

    • gr82bme profile image

      gr82bme 6 years ago from USA

      Great hub. The hobos today are not like the ones of olden days. I saw a tv. show about them. It was really bad. It is no way safe to be a hobo these days.

      I love Jack London

    • suziecat7 profile image
      Author

      suziecat7 7 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Hi Peggy - yes hobos were willing to work. It was good of your grandma to hire them. Thanks so much for commenting.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 7 years ago from Houston, Texas

      My grandmother always had food and even collected clothing for them. Often when my mother was returning from school they would be sitting on the stoop eating something cooked by my grandmother. No locked doors in those days and they always wanted to do some type of work in exchange. Sometimes she would have them rake the lawn or shovel the walks if it was winter. Their home must have had a mark because it was a regular occurance according to stories I heard from my mother. Great job with this hub! Rated up!

    • suziecat7 profile image
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      suziecat7 7 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Hi Lady E - We used to have "hobo parties" as kids. Thanks for reading.

    • Lady_E profile image

      Elena 7 years ago from London, UK

      Very interesting - Its the first time I've seen the word "Hobo". Thanks for enlightening me. :)

    • suziecat7 profile image
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      suziecat7 7 years ago from Asheville, NC

      ManWithNoPants - Thank you for your kind words. I appreciate your stopping by.

    • suziecat7 profile image
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      suziecat7 7 years ago from Asheville, NC

      lis - Glad you enjoyed.

    • TheManWithNoPants profile image

      TheManWithNoPants 7 years ago from Tucson, Az.

      What an awesome piece of work suziecat. I actually saved this in favorite places. thanks!

    • liswilliams profile image

      liswilliams 7 years ago from South Africa

      really insightful. I know about the hobo, but not the history. Great imagination! Thanks

    • suziecat7 profile image
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      suziecat7 7 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Tony - thanks for reading!

    • Tony Flanigan profile image

      Tony Flanigan 7 years ago from East London, South Africa

      This is incredibly interesting reading! Great hub suziecat7. Thank you.

    • suziecat7 profile image
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      suziecat7 7 years ago from Asheville, NC

      I scribble - I read your Hub and, yes, I've enjoyed that movie. Glad you stopped by.

    • suziecat7 profile image
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      suziecat7 7 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Ginn - it is so sad. At least the railway riders could find work. Thanks so much for commenting.

    • i scribble profile image

      i scribble 7 years ago

      This Hub interested me cuz I recently wrote a review about a depression era film (Places In the Heart) that featured a hobo, played by Danny Glover. A wonerful film. Have you seen it? I never knew where the term hobo came from. Love this kind of stuff. All in all, this hub is pretty great!

    • Ginn Navarre profile image

      Ginn Navarre 7 years ago

      Where I live today I can see the railroad tracks and I'm seeing more and more folks walking along it carrying their possessions.

      Today they can not ride that freight because the doors are locked---they can not walk along the freeways or many streets---it is sad for there are no jobs and now we just call them HOMELESS??? Really makes you wonder about what some call (the good old days) and now?

    • suziecat7 profile image
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      suziecat7 7 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Nicomp - Thanks for reading.

    • nicomp profile image

      nicomp really 7 years ago from Ohio, USA

      Very interesting. You always teach me something.

    • suziecat7 profile image
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      suziecat7 7 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Wrath - I'm glad you enjoyed.

    • suziecat7 profile image
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      suziecat7 7 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Ralwus - you are welcome.

    • Wrath Warbone profile image

      Terry Chestnutt 7 years ago from Cleveland, Ohio

      Thanks. Great photos.

    • profile image

      ralwus 7 years ago

      Great hub! Awesome actually. I learned a few things here, like some of the famous people who lived that life. It is quite dangerous today. I enjoyed that one movie that Lee Marvin did and the music is really great too. Thanks for this Suzie. CC

    • suziecat7 profile image
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      suziecat7 7 years ago from Asheville, NC

      tjmatel - The difference is in the work ethic - thanks for commenting.

    • Seakay profile image

      Seakay 7 years ago from Florida

      This brought back many stories and railroad yarns! My grandfather was a train engineer, my great grandfather a conductor, and my uncle was a brakeman. I think I am from one of the original Lackawanna RR engineering families. My mother always says life was hard but no one realized how hard because they were all in the same boat (or on the same train ;) )

    • billyaustindillon profile image

      billyaustindillon 7 years ago

      Great hub - evokes On the road with Jack Kerouac for me.

    • Arthur Windermere profile image

      Arthur Windermere 7 years ago

      Wow, I didn't realize hobo culture was so rich. I guess because I was never really inclined to care about hobo culture. It sounds very freeing. I'd love to try being a hobo for a while, just to see what it's like and if I can do it. But I'm too burdened with worldly possessions now. And my ascetic days are behind me. Oh well, you've got me dreaming. Rated up and AWESOME!

    • GreenTieCommando profile image

      GreenTieCommando 7 years ago from USA

      Very good quality hub!

    • Seakay profile image

      Seakay 7 years ago from Florida

      I enjoy everything about trains! My grandfather was an engineer, my great-grandfather was a conductor, and my great uncle was a brakeman. Sometimes, they all ended up assigned to the same train.

      Great Hub! Brought back memories!

    • tjmatel3 profile image

      Peter Grant 7 years ago from McDonough, GA

      Thanks for an enlightening hub. You certainly took a lot of time to provide such helpful info. Honestly, I never saw the hobo, tramp and bum as much different. Thanks!

    • suziecat7 profile image
      Author

      suziecat7 7 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Loria - I would love to hear your granfather's stories.

      Darlene - That cup was very clever, you're right. Thanks for commenting as always, Darlene.

    • Darlene Sabella profile image

      Darlene Sabella 7 years ago from Hello, my name is Toast and Jam, I live in the forest with my dog named Sam ...

      Fantastic hub, what a fun ride reading your hub, I adore that home made pot, how cleaver that is. I love trains and was raised in a small town and saw hobo when I was a kid, we were taught to stay clear. Thumbs up

    • profile image

      loriamoore 7 years ago

      My grandfather was also a hobo. He rode the L&N line (Louisville/Nashville) and would just take off for a few days and show back up and have been to several places with stories to match.

    • suziecat7 profile image
      Author

      suziecat7 7 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Onusonus - I would love to read your grandpa's journal. Thanks for reading.

    • suziecat7 profile image
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      suziecat7 7 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Cybersupe - I'm so glad you enjoyed the article and that it brought back good memories. I would have loved to listen to the stories too. Thanks for stopping by.

    • suziecat7 profile image
      Author

      suziecat7 7 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Habee - thanks.

      Valerie - Sorry it's takes me so long to respond. I'm a manager and my job swallows me up at times. Thank you so much for reading. There's a difference between a hobo and a bum. A hobo wants work a bum just begs. The hobos of today are quite different than those in the Depression, aren't they?

    • suziecat7 profile image
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      suziecat7 7 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Prasetio - It's always good to see you. You are welcome.

    • suziecat7 profile image
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      suziecat7 7 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Wayne - it is very dangerous. Not only hopping the trains but being victim to criminals as well. Thanks for stopping by.

    • suziecat7 profile image
      Author

      suziecat7 7 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Ethel - It was a hard life. Many left families behind to do what they had to do.

    • suziecat7 profile image
      Author

      suziecat7 7 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Akirchner - Yes, Rod McCuen and many writers. We are a weird lot. Thanks for commenting.

    • Onusonus profile image

      Onusonus 7 years ago from washington

      My Gramps was a hobo, and he kept a journal of all the crazy stuff he saw riding the rails. If the jobless people of today's world were more like the jobless people of that day, our future would be a shining prospect of hope for America.

      Excelent hub.

    • CYBERSUPE profile image

      CYBERSUPE 7 years ago from MALVERN, PENNSYLVANIA, U.S.A.

      It has been a very long time since I came across someone like you who knows or even heard of hobo's. I was born in 1931 and lived no more than 100 feet from a railroad. As a young kid, I saw and mingled with Hobo's that were in transit from West Virginia to Pittsburg in Pennsylvania. Interesting and what story tellers. I would sit and listen to them for hours. You have stirred up so many memories for me, for the good old days. Yes, even in a depression.

    • suziecat7 profile image
      Author

      suziecat7 7 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Dahoglund - Thank you so much for reading. I can imagine how noisy it was near the tracks.

    • valeriebelew profile image

      valeriebelew 7 years ago from Metro Atlanta, GA, USA

      Went back and read about Joe Hill, because I remembered the name from a Joan Biaz song. Very well researched and well written hub, also interesting topic. With our present recession, many are about ready to jump the trains for work. I also have a hippie niece, from wealthy upbringing, believe it or not, who traveled with the rainbow gatherings and lived similar to this by choice. They called their stew "rainbow stew," and it was a stew made of mixed items contributed by the different groups. (:v

    • valeriebelew profile image

      valeriebelew 7 years ago from Metro Atlanta, GA, USA

      Here's a lyric my Dad used to sing from the depression days. "Why don't you work, like other men do

      How the hell can I work when there's no work to do

      halaluliah, I'm a bum

      halaluliah, bum again

      halaluliah, give us a hand out

      revive us again." I could go on, but I'll spare you and your fans. LOL.

    • suziecat7 profile image
      Author

      suziecat7 7 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Sheila - the marks were something new that I learned. Thanks for commenting.

      Carolina - "Hoe boy" goes back to the Civil War when farming was the only work available. Thanks for reading.

    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 7 years ago from Georgia

      Interesting hub! I remember seeing a few as a kid.

    • prasetio30 profile image

      prasetio30 7 years ago from malang-indonesia

      Good information from you, Suzie. I never know about this before. I like something about history. And I like "hobo" history. I learn much from you. Good work. Two thumbs up for you. Thank you very much.

      Prasetio

    • Wayne Brown profile image

      Wayne Brown 7 years ago from Texas

      Very informative and interesting read. Thanks for sharing. Just last year I read a piece in the local newspaper about a man who had hobby of catching trains and riding the rail to various spots just like the hobo. Every year, he does it. Apparently it is somewhat popular although dangerous. Keep turning out! WB

    • abidareacode profile image

      abidareacode 7 years ago from Areacode , Kerala, India

      I didn't understand the theme of this hub.

    • Research Analyst profile image

      Research Analyst 7 years ago

      this is such an interesting topic and to learn about the history is a really eye opener and thanks for sharing the story.

    • ethel smith profile image

      Eileen Kersey 7 years ago from Kingston-Upon-Hull

      It was a hard life for so many though

    • akirchner profile image

      Audrey Kirchner 7 years ago from Central Oregon

      I would never have guessed Rod McCuen - great info! I have always liked hobos and their historical significance - I'm not so big on bums!

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Very informative. Some of it I knew from the study of folklore but some new information was here as well. I recall that living near the railroad was considered undesirable. Partly because of noise, but I think also because of the itinerant people carried by the trains.

    • carolina muscle profile image

      carolina muscle 7 years ago from Charlotte, North Carolina

      That is fascinating.. I never knew the derivation of the term hobo!

    • sheila b. profile image

      sheila b. 7 years ago

      My grandmother used to give the hobos some food, and then she discovered they'd put a mark on her front stairs so others would know she'd feed them.

    • suziecat7 profile image
      Author

      suziecat7 7 years ago from Asheville, NC

      drbj - It is a sad commentary. I made sure not to mention the bums we see today. There are rail riders still but they work. Thanks so much for reading.

    • suziecat7 profile image
      Author

      suziecat7 7 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Hi Coolmon - Glad you enjoyed. Thanks for commenting.

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 7 years ago from south Florida

      Very thorough, Susie, I enjoyed reading this. Today at many busy intersections in big cities we see many folks who are neither hobos nor tramps looking for work but simply beggars who do not want to work. A sad commentary on the death of the work ethic.

    • Coolmon2009 profile image

      Coolmon2009 7 years ago from Texas, USA

      Good article didn't know Burl Ives rode the rails when he was younger. I enjoyed your article.

    • suziecat7 profile image
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      suziecat7 7 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Christopher - Let's hope it never repeats itself. Thanks for dropping by.

    • suziecat7 profile image
      Author

      suziecat7 7 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Nellieanna - The hobos of those days were only trying to make the best of a bad situation. They worked long days. Thanks, as always, for reading.

    • suziecat7 profile image
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      suziecat7 7 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Mentalist - It's a romantic idea but the reality is not so. Thanks for commenting.

    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 7 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      Very interesting and well written. A reminder of an era that hopefully never completely returns. Thankyou.

    • Nellieanna profile image

      Nellieanna Hay 7 years ago from TEXAS

      Wonderful history and hub, susiecat! I was a 'Depression Baby' and well remember the hobos of those 1930s. They had pride, though. They didn't beg - they insisted on trading work for food. They were truly good folks who could be trusted. No one locked doors or worried about them. It's good to see the genre appreciated. Love the Norman Rockwall illustration at the top.

    • Mentalist acer profile image

      Mentalist acer 7 years ago from A Voice in your Mind!

      Great Hub,I would have never thoght of Orwell or Burl Ives to have rode the rails...