From the 1880’s to the 1930’s hobos were a familiar sight along the railroads and back roads of America.  They were travelers, always looking for a cheap way to get from here to there.  Hoping to find work, opportunities, and also a bit of adventure, they lived on the road, hopping freight trains and stowing away in boxcars.  The train workers were never happy about these stowaways, and men were even hired to keep watch and kick them off the trains if they were caught.  Hobos weren’t lazy though; they were workers.  They were just workers who wandered as they went, never staying in one place for long.

These two hobos are walking after they were put off a train.  One hobo is carrying a bindle, a bundle tied to a stick.  Public domain.

Hobo Language Exploration

Over time, hobos created a language all their own, a sort of code of unique words.  Print out this Hobo Terms Worksheet and see if you can decipher what the hobos were saying. (Scroll down for the answers).


Hobo Codes Exploration

Besides a spoken code language of sorts, hobos also had a written code to communicate information with each other.  Look at what some of the symbols they used meant, then make up your own code.

12 hobo codes

Additional Layers

  • Hobos, tramps, and bums are lumped together frequently, but they are actually quite different.  The difference is in what they do rather than what they look like.  Hobos wandered and worked.  Tramps wandered and avoided work.  Bums neither wander nor work.  What other things look the same,  but are different in what they do?
  • Read The Autobiography of a Super Tramp by W.H. Davies.
  • Railroads were once thought to have been the future for travel in America.  We still use them some for passengers, but much more frequently for cargo.  Why do you think this is so?
  • Hobos developed an ethical code that included things like: “Decide your  own life.  Don’t let another person run or rule you.”  & “If you can’t find work, make your own work using your talents.”  Write your own code of ethics that includes things you believe in.

Answers to Hobo Matching Worksheet

Bindle stick = A collection of belongings wrapped in cloth and tied around a stick

Jungle = Area off a railroad where hobos camp and congregate

Possum Belly = To ride on the roof of a passenger car

Bone polisher = A mean dog

Mulligan Stew = Meal created by mixing the food of several hobos

Riding the rods = Lying in the undercarriage of a boxcar near the wheels

Blowed-in-the-glass = A trustworthy person

California blankets = Newspapers used for bedding

Cannonball = A fast train

Padding the hoof = To travel by foot

Catch out = To hop an outbound train

Glad rags = Your best clothes

Banjo = A small, portable frying pan

Bull = A railroad officer


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.