The brotherhood of hobos

by Rob Horning

10 December 2008


Social services in America are probably sufficient to prevent a noticeable outburst of nouveau hoboism, no matter how long the recession lasts. We probably won’t again see lean, bearded men riding the rails from agricultural day-laboring gig to gig, pleading for an honest day’s wage for an honest day’s work. Socially necessary labor isn’t as fungible anymore, and the newly unemployed are not manual laborers so much as information processors who would be useless on a farm or in a factory anyway. And unemployment benefits are probably sufficient to prevent people from having to abandon their families and migrate aimlessly in search of employment.

But if we did have a return of the itinerant worker (who was not a Mexican immigrant), it might put to rest the myth of the hobo brotherhood that tends to crop up in Hollywood depictions. I have in mind one particular hobo trope, which I suspect is highly overrepresented: the way in which hobos carved fence posts with special symbols to share with other hobos important information about who lived there. This most recently popped up in Mad Men, where young Donald Draper has an encounter with a hobo who marks his family as evil.

Interestingly, the NSA, of all institutions, has a page detailing the history of this phenomenon.

The origin of the signs, like the Hobo name, is lost to history, but some of the symbols and their meanings have been documented. Carl Liungman’s Dictionary of Symbols makes a connection between the hobo signs in the U.S. with those in England and the gypsy signs used in Sweden. A few of the symbols are the same. Several look the same, but have a different meaning. And still more are completely different, even if the information being relayed is similar. Like any language, written or spoken, over time it develops independently to meet the needs of those using it.
What’s interesting to note, as Liungman points out, is that the system developed at all. Hobos, in general, travel alone and enjoy their independence. And yet, they still congregate in hobo jungles or travel with an occasional partner only to split when they decide to go a different way. Despite this preference for solitude, they still feel a certain camaraderie with their fellow hobos, an obligation to assist their brethren – thus, the creation of the signs and symbols.

I guess I am too cynical to believe in this mysterious camaraderie among the hobo brethren, or at least believe it was as widespread as you’d think from the movies. Hollywood producers and writers must find this romantic image of hobo communication irresistible; it perfectly captures the idea of their leading a secret life of adventure and all working together to subvert square, straight life. It makes it seem as though hobos have a code of honor, like knights errant or repo men. It almost encourages us to regard hoboism as something one volunteers for rather than something one is driven to by economic misery, anomie, or the stultifying conditions of everyday life.

Still, you wouldn’t think drifters would be so cooperative. Their incentive to help other drifters doesn’t seem particularly high, as the more drifters there are, the more they will be regarded negatively. Marking a fence post to indicate that the getting is good would probably alienate those who have helped hobos before, once they are inundated with new ones. And you’d think the choice to drift would indicate an inability to cooperate with social norms, with the ethic of cooperation that getting along with world requires. These are people who can’t integrate—I know that we are supposed to regard this as proof of their purity, their inability to get along in a corrupt system and deal with all the plasticity and checking out of the rat race. Kind of like how the crazy people are the ones who are really sane.



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