No offense intended: unlike calling someone a “tramp” or a “bum,” the word “hobo” is associated with traveling workers. Abumdoesn’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 following the end of the American Civil War. 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.”
A Top Hat and a Triangle
“Rich people live here” is the meaning behind this dapper little glyph of a top hat and a triangle. A top hat on its own, on the other hand, meant the house in question belongs to a gentleman (who may or may not be rich).
Encountering this glyph meant hobos had better be prepared to defend themselves. Meant to indicate a spearhead, this symbol let hobos know to not enter the area without a weapon of some sort.
A Circle With Two Arrows
This life-saving bit of hobo code meant, essentially, “Hobo-Free Zone.” It advised hobos to leave the area quickly to avoid trouble. If it looks oddly familiar to you, add one more arrow and you have the logo forPitchfork (insert hobo hipster joke here).
Two Interlocked Circles
Is a hobo wedding in the works? Not even close. Meant to signify a pair of handcuffs, this glyph meant that hobos in the area will likely be hauled off to jail. The NSA’s interpretation is simply, “Police frown on hobos.” According to the National Hobo Museum, similar warnings included “Police officer lives here” or the more specific “Policewoman lives here.”
A Caduceus Symbol
A crude caduceus symbol – the ubiquitous snake on a staff symbol still associated with medicine – meant that help could be found for sick or injured hobos. Specifically, a caduceus found on a house meant that a doctor lived there.
A Cross with a Smiley Face
Similar to the caduceus symbol – but not to be confused with the similar “Will trade religious conversation for food” symbol – the presence of a cross with a smiley face hovering next to it also meant that a doctor was in the area. This symbol, however, meant that the doctor wouldn’t charge a hobo for their services.
A “cat lady” meant something different, apparently, in the heyday of hobo code. This precious scrawl indicated that the lady of the house would be kind to hobos passing through.
A Wavy Line Above an X and Two Circles
This glyph was a welcome sight for tired, thirsty hobos. The National Cryptologic Museum interprets this as “Fresh water safe campsite.”
Three Diagonal Lines
“This is not a safe place” is the dire message behind this simple hobo symbol. One variation catalogued by the NSA with two additional horizontal lines meant “Crime committed here, not safe for strangers.” Regardless of the circumstances, wise hobos would steer clear of buildings bearing this or similar marks.
Looking like the caduceus symbol if the snake fell off the staff, this glyph meant that – for better or for worse – a judge lived at the house. A similar symbol with a circle around it meant that a courthouse was nearby.
Circle with an X Inside
This simple symbol meant two things depending on the size of the X: if the X filled the circle, the National Hobo Museum says the symbol meant “OK here. Good chance for food.” A smaller X was a less hopeful sign that meant “Good for a hand-out.”