Was it really such a big thing?
Hobos (a word that is thought to derive from the term hoe-boy, describing a farmhand) were Depression-era itinerant workers who illegally hopped freight trains and journeyed across the US, taking odd jobs wherever they could find them. By the early 1900s, it's said that there were more than 500,000 hobos in the US.
The hobo code is a system of symbols purportedly used by hobos to communicate information about resources and conditions at locations along their routes. The pictographic symbols were often scratched or painted on buildings or other structures in locations where hobos were known to congregate. The code was devised as an easy-to-understand, universal hobo language that helped fellow hobos keep one another safe. Nice.
The pictographic code contains several elements that appear in more than one symbol, like the circles and arrows that comprise the directional symbols. Hash marks or crossed lines generally depict some form of danger, whereas a curly line inside a circle means that there is a courthouse or police station nearby. Other symbols are easier to decipher e.g. a cross means that there is a church in the vicinity and the possibility of scoring a free meal and perhaps shelter for the night.
The story goes that hobos typically tagged tree trunks or scrawled impermanent coded messages in chalk, charcoal or grease pencil in boxcars, under bridges, on water tower bases, walls, fences, sewer trestles and other surfaces in or near railroad yards where other hobos were likely to pass by.
The lore of the hobo code seems to have originated with Leon Ray Livingston, better known as A-No.1, America's self-proclaimed "most famous tramp who traveled 500,000 miles (804,672 kilometers) for $7.61”. Livingston expounded the use of the hobo code to a variety of newspapers as he traveled throughout the country and published the code in his 1911 book entitled "Hobo Campfire Tales”.
While there may be little evidence to prove that the hobo code was actually widely used and not just a media concoction, we do know for certain that hobos left their marks. But instead of code, they were generally monikers: markings with the hobo’s nickname, the date, and an indication of direction of travel. Indeed, anthropologists have found many examples of emblazoned hobo monikers, a precursor to modern day tagging by street artists.
The fictional TV series Mad Men helped spark viewer curiosity about the reality of this practice. In a 2007 episode titled The Hobo Code, the series protagonist recalls a scene from his childhood in which a hobo explained a few key symbols.
Recent interest in hobo codes has inspired some people to reimagine this communication system for the digital era. A group called Free Art & Technology Lab, for example, launched a stencil-based “QR Hobo Code” project in 2011 that taps into a more contemporary form of graffiti coupled with a newer technology.
“These stencils can be understood as a covert markup scheme for urban spaces,” explain the creators, “providing directions, information, and warnings to digital nomads and other indigenterati. We present these as modern equivalents of the chalk-based ‘hobo signs’ developed by 19th-century vagabonds and migratory workers to cope with the difficulty of nomadic life.”
But the QR Hobo Code stencils inventory went beyond the conventional “turn right here / dangerous dog” messages that are specific to contemporary conditions: “free wifi”, “hidden cameras”, “vegans beware” or (our favourites) “unexpectedly good coffee” and “owner gives to GOP”.
The idea for this story was contributed by Tom Fenley
1. Hobo Code Pictographs
2. Image Credit: Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
3. Hobo Coding
4. Hobo John Walpole draws a chalk cross on the wall of a farmhouse where they gave him food 1 April 1939. The mark served to tell others that they had treated him well (from "The Life Of A Tramp," Picture Post magazine, 1939). FELIX MAN/PICTURE POST/HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES
5. The Ways of the Hobo by A-No.1
6. Hobo depicted in Mad Men, 2007. Image: Mad Men / AMC
7 & 8. QR Hobo Code. Free Art & Technology Lab, 2011
9. QR Hobo Code: "unexpectedly good coffee"
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