The Hobo Code

File this under random. I have a strange fascination with hobo culture. In fact, two of my very different interests (it should be pointed out that I have a lot of odd diversions), intersected in the first season of Mad Men when a young Dick Whitman (aka Don Draper) meets a hobo man that teaches him a lesson about life. Amazing. Everything you need to know about how to get by as a hobo can be seen below. Given the current economy, this might actually have real world applications.


Hobo code from the National Hobo Museum (thanks to Manna from Brooklyn for the find). It should be said that the gentleman above is a rail worker not a hobo. But that’s what I would guess they looked like.



Hobo lingo in use up to the 1940s (from Wikipedia)

* Accommodation car – The caboose of a train
* Angellina – young inexperienced kid
* Bad Road – A train line rendered useless by some hobo’s bad action
* Banjo – (1) A small portable frying pan. (2) A short, “D” handled shovel
* Barnacle – a person who sticks to one job a year or more
* Beachcomber – a hobo that hangs around docks or seaports
* Big House – Prison
* Bindle stick – Collection of belongings wrapped in cloth and tied around a stick
* Bindlestiff – A hobo who steals from other hobos.
* Blowed-in-the-glass – a genuine, trustworthy individual
* “‘Bo” – the common way one hobo referred to another: “I met that ‘Bo on the way to Bangor last spring”.
* Boil Up – Specifically, to boil one’s clothes to kill lice and their eggs. Generally, to get oneself as clean as possible
* Bone polisher – A mean dog
* Bone orchard – a graveyard
* Bull – A railroad officer
* Bullets – Beans
* Buck – a Catholic priest good for a dollar
* C, H, and D – indicates an individual is Cold, Hungry, and Dry (thirsty)
* California Blankets – Newspapers, intended to be used for bedding
* Calling In – Using another’s campfire to warm up or cook
* Cannonball – A fast train
* Carrying the Banner – Keeping in constant motion so as to avoid being picked up for loitering or to keep from freezing
* Catch the Westbound – to die
* Chuck a dummy – Pretend to faint
* Cover with the moon – Sleep out in the open
* Cow crate – A railroad stock car
* Crumbs – Lice
* Doggin’ it – Traveling by bus, especially on the Greyhound bus line
* Easy mark – A hobo sign or mark that identifies a person or place where one can get food and a place to stay overnight
* Elevated – under the influence of drugs or alcohol
* Flip – to board a moving train
* Flop – a place to sleep, by extension: “Flophouse”, a cheap hotel.
* Glad Rags – One’s best clothes
* Graybacks – Lice
* Grease the Track – to be run over by a train
* Gump – a scrap of meat
* Honey dipping – Working with a shovel in the sewer
* Hot – (1) A fugitive hobo. (2) A decent meal: “I could use three hots and a flop.”
* Hot Shot – train with priority freight, stops rarely, goes faster. synonym for “Cannonball”
* Jungle – An area off a railroad where hobos camp and congregate
* Jungle Buzzard – a hobo or tramp that preys on their own
* Knowledge bus – A school bus used for shelter
* Main Drag – the busiest road in a town
* Moniker / Monica – A nickname
* Mulligan – a type of community stew, created by several hobos combining whatever food they have or can collect
* Nickel note – five-dollar bill
* On The Fly – jumping a moving train
* Padding the hoof – to travel by foot
* Possum Belly – to ride on the roof of a passenger car. One must lay flat, on his/her stomach, to not be blown off
* Pullman – a rail car
* Punk – any young kid
* Reefer – A compression of “refrigerator car”.
* Road kid – A young hobo who apprentices himself to an older hobo in order to learn the ways of the road
* Road stake – the small amount of money a hobo may have in case of an emergency
* Rum dum – A drunkard
* Sky pilot – a preacher or minister
* Soup bowl- A place to get soup, bread and drinks
* Snipes – Cigarette butts “sniped” (eg. in ashtrays)
* Spear biscuits – Looking for food in garbage cans
* Stemming – panhandling or mooching along the streets
* Tokay Blanket – drinking alcohol to stay warm
* Yegg – A traveling professional thief


Comments on “The Hobo Code

    Rob on January 29, 2009 11:30 AM:

    Have you read “You Can’t Win” by Jack Black? I suspect you have but if not you MUST immediately. It’s a hobo memoir from the early 20th century. It was out of print for years but it seems to be back now.

    Thom on January 29, 2009 11:37 AM:

    Add to that the section(s) on hobos in John Hodgman’s My Areas of Expertise. If you can find it (or I can send it to you) I strongly recommend the audio edition with Jon Coulton where he narrates his history of the hobo wars. Incredible.

    Michael Williams on January 29, 2009 11:38 AM:

    What is better than something called “Hobo Wars”? Thanks for the tips guys…


    r on January 29, 2009 11:57 AM:

    the young American hobo pre-beard…

    etrine on January 29, 2009 12:58 PM:

    And there’s always the Hobosoul, two young guys who adopted a hobo-esque lifestyle by moving into a 1973 Winnebago in order to break into the film industry. Lot’s of good hobo related links via their blog, not to mention they’ve done some great projects over the last couple of years…

    james fox on January 29, 2009 1:08 PM:
    james of secret forts on January 29, 2009 1:18 PM:

    I concur, “You Can’t Win” is an absolute must read.
    Also, “Mostly True” by Bill Daniel is a good source for wander-lust, hobo culture.

    stephanie on January 29, 2009 1:37 PM:

    Following up on Thom’s comment:

    John Hodgman is a genius. My sister and I are planning a someday field trip to the National Hobo Convention:

    Hollister Hovey on January 29, 2009 2:14 PM:

    One day in the ’30s my grandpa – an engineer for Burlington Northern – came across a starving hobo family in a boxcar. They were headed west so the dad could find work, and the family, a new life. Grandpa thought they had no chance, but bought them some food, gave them money and snuck them back on the train. Months later, the guy sent a letter. He did get that job and sent money to pay my gramps back. Hobos and trains – can’t separate ’em.

    Rich on January 29, 2009 2:56 PM:

    One of the best things I have ever seen – and it includes some AMAZING stories about hoboing. I mean, the guys name is Peg Leg Sam, that alone makes it worth watching.

    mike ley on January 29, 2009 4:30 PM:

    awesome post. being able to really live it up as a railfan is one of the things i miss about not living in the midwest.

    John George on January 29, 2009 4:42 PM:

    In addition to Hodgeman’s book, (Which I read aloud to my unborn son) is this fun assortment of submitted illustrations of his list of 700 hobo names.

    james fox on January 29, 2009 5:16 PM:

    some killer links above. major hum-intel. trains/denim/hobo knives/slang… awesome.

    Warren on January 29, 2009 5:22 PM:

    I’m racking my brains to come up with an application for the symbol “a fence lives here.”

    I’ve always been enamored with hobo culture, too, but really, thinking about living as a hobo is probably 100 times better than living as a hobo. Let’s be honest.

    Zeek on January 29, 2009 5:26 PM:

    A funny riff on the signs are these modern day hobo signs:

    Warren on January 29, 2009 5:45 PM:

    Oh, and the rail worker pic reminds me of this Bob Dylan video.
    . I’d proffer that living in a deeply wooded cabin with 5 of my closest proletariat brothers, separated from our families ’til “the work is done,” just nips living on the rails as a hobo in re: to romanticism.

    Abe on January 29, 2009 5:58 PM:

    Odds of a real hobo rocking a jack that crisp and clean seem kind of slim.

    @Warren, “a fence lives here” probably means exactly what it says that someone who traffics in stolen goods lives there. Which speaks well towards your other point, that hobo life isn’t really as romantic as it seems when viewed from a comfortable vantage point. My grandfather road the rails for a year and funnily enough that wasn’t the year he wanted to tell stories about, as much as us grandkids wanted to know…

    Michael Williams on January 29, 2009 5:59 PM:

    Abe = buzzkill

    Hobo Ken on January 30, 2009 12:04 AM:

    Great post ! You must read Autobiography of a Supertramp by welsh poet WH Davies . It’s an account of his hobo’ing around the states in the 1890’s. Fantastic book. I love a bit of late 60’s/early 70’s hobo-chic myself – the style epitomized in the Pacino/Hackman film Scarecrow.

    Rower on January 30, 2009 2:32 AM:

    You should take a look at the work of a young american travelling Artist namend “Polaroid Kidd.” He lives amongst modern day hobos/gypsies and takes great pictures of them.

    Some can be seen here:

    BOBT on January 30, 2009 9:38 AM:

    Give me a break. You want to be a hobo? All the people losing their jobs and being forced be without a home and to travel place to place looking for work. Talk about irony with all of the expensive items are special selvedge jeans and Moscot glasses ……….

    Dandy Nihilism on January 30, 2009 10:00 AM:

    Romanticized conceptions of early twentieth century hobos certainly are are interesting in a sort of ‘Hoborientalism.’ Wanderlust juxtaposed with industrialism. There’s something distinctively American about just scraping by and living by your wits. At least partially rooted in the generations who lived through the Depression. There is a stylistic virtue of durability; especially concerning clothing and possessions.

    However, in today’s world with 401(k)’s and OSHA the romanticized hobo surely does not exist? The only thing close to hobo’s are the homeless people who congregate at Penn Station and they aren’t romantic. They just smell awful.

    sam on January 30, 2009 10:09 AM:

    riddle me this! how come people in NYC call bums hobos? i’ll need to see him in a train before i bestow that “honor” on him. so, assuming it’s not just the clothing, what else about hobo culture do you like? do you also like stowaways? getting away with it is where it’s at!

    when is Hermes dropping those new bindle stick scarves?

    austinite on January 30, 2009 10:10 AM:

    I highly recommend Hobo by Eddy Joe Cotton if you like Hobo culture. It will make you want to quit your job and start riding the rails.

    BOBT on January 30, 2009 11:25 AM:

    I looked at the photo’s from polarroid kid and I feel very sad for the people in the pictures. There is nothing to be glamorized – just think what they have to go through to get some simple medical care. I have traveled in a very poor part of the 3rd world where families have to live like Hobos it’s not a pretty site.

    It makes me want to put on my APC dry denim jeans, my Barbour jacket and indy boots and become a hobo : (

    Ash-Ra on January 30, 2009 1:19 PM:

    Just watched Emperor of the North last weekend. Borgnine vs Marvin – they don’t make them like the used to

    Angelo R. on January 30, 2009 2:00 PM:

    Text based online game:

    (Sadly, I have been playing this game for over a year)

    drinkinanddronin on January 30, 2009 4:10 PM:

    Great post! That was probably one of my favorite episodes from Mad Men. I had always read up about the code, but it was incredible when they actually included it in the show!

    Dal on January 30, 2009 7:48 PM:

    Nice post.
    Check out this book on Hobo Culture. Amazing.
    “You Can’t Win” by Jack Black (not the actor)

    don weir on January 30, 2009 8:03 PM:

    bill daniels “who is bozo texino” is a must as well:

    p on February 2, 2009 4:58 AM:

    This is all a little crass don’t you think?

    thomas on February 2, 2009 12:27 PM:

    I just wanted to thank all the everyone for all these great links here in the comments. Hobo culture is something I’ve been interested in lately, so this is all great stuff for me. I plan on reading Jack Black’s book soon.

    ACL, I’ve been reading your blog for a while but this is my first comment. Thanks for the consistently great posts, they really keep me entertained at work. Keep up the great work.

    Michael Williams on February 2, 2009 12:59 PM:

    I have to say that I thought you all were going to call me crazy for posting this. It seems that a lot of you share my crazy hobo interest. Thanks for commenting and for all the suggestions. My summer reading is going to be all-hobo.


    hhs on February 2, 2009 3:33 PM:

    My dad loved hobos, dressed up as one every year for halloween, and made me watch The Journey of Natty Gan hundreds of times–which really is one of John Cusack’s best films. So I am thrilled that hobo style is now very acceptable, I will be culling from Natty’s closet.

    Tiny Banquet on February 12, 2009 4:20 PM:

    I had a boyfriend once whose grannie used to let hobos sleep in her garage – wish I’d done a thorough inspection for relevant code the time we went to visit her. Anyhow, I think some of these symbols and phrases need to be revived. I’ll do my part with “carrying the banner” since that’s basically what I do with my bar membership . . . .

    driftcreative on October 20, 2009 4:17 PM:

    Check out our use of the drifters code. We’ve updated it for our company and sent it out to clients as a self promo piece.

    driftcreative on October 20, 2009 4:20 PM:

Comments are closed.