Roughly from the 1880s until the 1940s, hobos who rode the rails across the United States would leave cryptic symbols on fences, sidewalks, street signs and railway stops for fellow hobos to discover. These symbols, known as hobo signs would provide vital information useful to other travelers, including the hospitality level of the town, potential resting and eating spots, local law enforcement status and the best approaches for a handout. Whenever a hobo arrived in a new town, he or she would seek out these hobo signs first to see if a stopover would even be worth the risk.
Most hobo signs are simple line drawings created from chalk, charcoal sticks or possibly carved into the ground. There are regional variations on many of the most common hobo signs, but a savvy traveler should be able to recognize their basic meaning. In an effort to prevent detection from law enforcement or the creation of false or misleading symbols by outsiders, many of the original hobo signs have changed over the years, much like modern street slang.
Some hobo signs are used to warn other hobos of the presence of law enforcement or a general lack of hospitality for vagrants. A series of hash marks, for example, indicated a nearby jail. A dot under a curved line would signal an active police force, while a dot placed over a curved line would signal a lack of police activity. A spiral spring would warn hobos of the presence of a judge, while a spring drawn inside a box would indicate a nearby courthouse.
Other hobo signs informed travelers of the relative hospitality of a homeowner. A simple cross meant the hobo should engage in religious talk in order to receive food or shelter. A rudimentary drawing of a cat or a stick figure with a voluminous skirt indicated the presence of a kind woman. The letter "M" suggested a hobo should tell the homeowner a hard luck story to increase his or her chances of a meal or lodging. One of the worst hobo signs to discover was a triangle with upraised stick "arms." This meant the homeowner owned a gun.
Hobo signs also allowed hobos to find other necessities such as medical treatment, clean drinking water and a suitable camping area. A "plus" sign with a man's face in one corner meant a doctor would provide free medical care. A large letter "r" would also indicate free health care was available.
A wavy line indicated a safe water supply, while a wavy line between two straight lines indicated unsafe water. A large letter "U" represented a safe place to sleep, while circles with arrows suggested a hasty exit from the area. Two small dots over a curved line meant sleeping in a barn or hayloft was permitted.
Not all hobo signs were benevolent in nature, however. A large letter "V" informed vagrants that a faked illness would receive sympathy. Two sticks placed like a sideways "T" indicated an easy mark for a grift, or scam, lived in the house. A circle with a diagonal line often meant the house was worth robbing. Other signs indicated wealthy occupants or the owner's absence.
More substantial lists of hobo signs and symbols are available in books dedicated to the history of the hobo or rail riding era and the times of the Great Depression. Some of these hobo signs still appear today. Many modern rail riders prefer to use other forms of secret communication amongst themselves in order to avoid gaining the attention of law enforcement.