There are not so many times in American history when things were as dire as they were during the Great Depression. People lost everything and could do nothing to stop it. Desperate times produce desperate men, and none were as desperate as a hobo. They were not criminals like most people assumed they were. In fact, most hobos had a code of honor that they lived by known as the “Code of the Road.” Most did not rob people or steal from houses. They often worked their way across the country, doing odd jobs and then, stowing away aboard cargo trains so they could move on to the next town.
The hobo population increased dramatically during the Great Depression. People who had been squeaking by before the market crashed were unable to keep their heads afloat. They lost their jobs and their homes and had nobody to turn to, so they ended up on the streets.
To ensure they didn’t get harassed or end up being arrested, hobos developed a hobo code – a kind of sign language – that could be read and recognized in seconds. For instance, there were different hobo codes for many different things. This hobo code was particularly useful because it used symbols and not written words as very few hobos were educated enough that they would have been able to read anything actually written down. Instead, they developed symbols that would be easy for another hobo to understand and confusing for police or other outsiders to decipher.
Every symbol drawn on a house was an indication of the kind of reception a person could expect from the people inside. A spiral would indicate that a judge lived in a house so hobos would avoid it. An upside down horseshoe shape with a dot underneath it would indicate that police were patrolling the area. A circle with an X inside would indicate a handout could be obtained while an empty circle meant nothing would be gained at the location. A dog or cat image indicated that a kind woman willing to help them lived in the house; a top hat indicated a man. They also had symbols for other things – a good place to catch a train, a house where there was a noisy dog, a house where the doctor wouldn’t charge. They even had a symbol that told if an owner was likely to call the police on them or that an officer lived in the area.
The codes could most often be found on utility poles using charcoal or other temporary marks that would wash away with the weather. This kept hobos from being charged with vandalism. The signs themselves also evolved as times changed. When hobos began to realize that their code was being broken, a symbol would be changed, which is why some hobo code signs seem very obvious and others do not connect with their message at all.
Although there were no security camera systems during the 1930's when the code was developed, hobos still had to avoid the police and other authority figures. They developed a truly brilliant code and you can still see some evidence of it at the Rochester Railroad Park. The ingenious hobo code helped them stay safe and alive on the streets.