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No One Home

The hobo code

Iconograph begins by deciphering the centuries-old language of American travelling folk

TextJustin BlythIllustrationJustin Blyth

Starting today is new blog about symbols, signs and codes from Justin Blyth, founder of Iconograph zine. Pick up the mag from the site, and check back here for the next instalment. 

"When a woman get's the blues, she hangs her little head and cries… But when a man gets blues he grabs a train and rides."

- Jimmie Rodgers 'Train Whistle Blues' (1929)

Unlike tramps or bums (who never work if it can be avoided), hobos are a particular variety of mythic homeless traveler: workers who wander. These wanderers embraced the vast railroad system of North America as their means of travel after the American Civil War, when soldiers hopped freight trains looking to get back home. Later, those looking for work on the frontier chased the rails west on boxcars through the late 19th century. Many of these restless pioneers stuck with the hobo lifestyle both out of necessity, and for the freedom and brotherhood it provided. Of course it's also secretive, dangerous, and illegal. 

Hobos occupy the fringes of society and prefer not to interact with authorities if such things can be avoided. They also follow a strict self-imposed moral code, which implores them to help each other. Because of this wariness and self-reliance, over time these travelers developed the hobo code, a system of marks and symbols intended to advise their brothers along the way. The sign for "No One Home", meaning "sleep in this house at your own risk, nobody lives here" is above. These secret glyphs were scrawled on walls, water towers, and rail yards as discreetly as possible. The cryptic code was intended to be indecipherable by those outside the brotherhood, who were mostly illiterate. Over time some hobos began to sign boxcars using the chalk they carried, with the signatures becoming more ornate over the years. Filmmaker Bill Daniel's 2005 documentary Who Is Bozo Texino chronicles his 16-year search for the source of one such ubiquitous tag. 

Hobos have inadvertently carved a niche in American folk-art and influenced giants like Barry McGee, Margaret Kilgallen and many others along the way. These days the quixotic American Hobo is on the verge of extinction. There are an estimated 20,000 chronic vagabonds who have shunned modern trappings to ride the rails today, but with GPS, Google earth, message boards, Go-Pro and the Patriot Act, it's neither as easy nor elusive as it once was.