The Hobo Lifestyle Was Actually Crucial To America

The word hobo doesn’t paint as clear a picture nowadays as it once did. Once upon a time, hoboes were a predominant part of American society. They were such a big deal, in fact, that they created their own culture and lifestyle. A single-item wardrobe and dirt-dusted hair were but minuscule characteristics hoboes shared. You won’t believe the way they communicated, how state policies were affected, or how their way of life permeated the United States, for the better.

How Are Hoboes Defined?

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There are two ways society tends to think about hoboes. In one court you have a very specific version of a homeless person: drunk on whiskey, chewing on a piece of straw, out in the country begging for his next meal.

This version is thanks to individuals like Woody Guthrie and Ernest Hemmingway, whose tales supplied a softer image to the dangerous life on the road. These glamorized hoboes lived the free life; jumping train tracks and playing the banjo.

Hoboes Are Not Bums

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A bum is someone who bums everything, AKA a freeloader. They also tend to stay in one place for reasons such as illness, disabilities, age, or just being drunk. While tramps and late 19th-century homeless people traveled the rails alongside hoboes, the distinction is huge.

For starters, hoboes believed in the American dream to the extent that hard work can provide a certain way of life. While Americans tend to identify this way of life through a home and other materials, for a hoboe that way of life is simple: the freedom to roam and still provide for oneself.

They Were Seriously Underestimated At First

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Not surprisingly, their emergence in the United States around 1900 was not met with warmth. The communities they traveled to viewed them as outcasts. They were sometimes beaten by locals and were often badgered by cops, even chased out of town.

Ironically, hoboes were an essential part of America’s economy, traveling far and wide for work that few others would do. While they may have chosen a lifestyle unlike most, oftentimes being without roots is precisely what allowed them to make money, particularly in the face of the Industrial Revolution and the Civil War.

They were also very similar to another group of working-class folks.

The First Hoboes Were Veterans

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Curator of the Hobo Museum in Britt, Iowa, Linda Hughes says that after the Civil War soldiers returned to no home or job. At that point, veterans would grab what little they had and hit the road, hence the sack attached to a stick symbol. Once they found a place to work they would stop until they’d earned enough to go off someplace new. That’s how the hoboe lifestyle began.

One theory about how the name “hobo” started is that these soldiers returning from the war would say they were “homeward bound”, abbreviated “hobo.”

There’s a reason the town of Britt has a museum for hoboes.

This State Is Like A Hobo Sanctuary

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Britt’s Hobo Museum is a testament to the community’s positive outlook on hoboes over the decades. The small town in Iowa has been an oasis for hoboes since 1900, including a weeklong National Hobo Convention every August that commends the culture and knocks myths surrounding it.

The convention still exists today and attracts about 20,000 tourists over the course of a week. A carnival, Ferris Wheel, parade, food trucks, flea market, and farmer’s market are all included. Inside the Hobo Museum, portraits of the Hobo Kings and Queens are displayed. That’s right, they even formed a royal system.

They Helped Build This Essential Part of America

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Author Roger A. Bruns writes on hobo history, saying that hoboes help build tons of essentials in the west, including houses, bridges, roads, and waterlines. Linda Hughes adds that they also did fieldwork, built courthouses, hospitals, and schools. Nothing could compare to the economic value of the railroad, though.

According to the Library of Congress, only 45,000 miles of track were laid before 1870. In the next 30 years, that number would jump to more than 200,000. A total of five transcontinental railroads were but from 1862 to 1900. So when hoboes were jumping tracks, they were the tracks their very own blood and sweat went into.

They also helped benefit this group of people.

Hoboes Helped Prevent Unemployment

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The Industrial Revolution created machines that often led to smaller workforces. If a worker was laid off, he might have to travel quite a ways to find a new job. The railroads enabled swift travel to other towns that may offer work, making the hobo’s lifestyle a prized opportunity.

The repeating long-arm rifle also played a role in the need for speed. These guns expanded the US further West, meaning new jobs in further territories. Rather than having the laborious task of packing gun powder and a bullet into the gun, which wouldn’t hold up against rapid-firing arrows, technology produced breech-loading, repeating arms.

But that doesn’t mean that economic crisis didn’t still happen.

Railroads Stabbed Hoboes In The Back

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The first great depression happened long before the 1930s. In 1873, the bank that had financed the railroads went under, causing work on the railroad to halt. Without railroads to work on, hoboes were in greater need than ever to find work anywhere they could across the country. But then things got worse.

Author Kenneth Allsop explains that the train operators would turn a blind eye to the hoboes hitching free rides before the depression because it meant more workers producing more cargo. In the desperation of the depression, though, it became time to come down on the free ridealongs.

And Then People Started Knocking On Kitchen Windows

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Researchers have found that prior to the Civil War, homeless people, or “tramps”, were taken care of through acts of charity and shelters in jails. As the hobo lifestyle became more popular, however, strangers began to infiltrate communities across the states. After the depression hit, these labor travelers had a harder and harder time not only finding work but also being able to relocate.

As a result, communities became filled with tramps, and newspapers became filled with articles about them. Towns became divided over whether or not to meet these people with compassion. Nervous housewives were being approached at their kitchen door by beggars. People were losing their patience.

Then things got cruel.

You Won’t Even Believe What Maine Did

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Should a hobo find themselves undergoing this crisis in Maine, they were even worse off. Towns were already setting strict trespassing laws, but only in Oakland, Maine would you get locked up just for being homeless. But it doesn’t stop there.

An article published by UC Riverside evokes the “terror of the tramp chair.” The captured tramp would be placed a cage, mocked, and tormented for a day. The idea was to ridicule them into leaving. The only option after that? Keep hoboing.

Hoboes Unite!

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Sixty-three hoboes near the Baltimore and Ohio railroad congregated at a hobo campsite known as a “jungle.” Fed up with being charged out of town for not having an immediate job, they decided it was time to form a union. The hope was that unemployed hoboes would stop being harassed and treated like tramps. They called it the National Tourist Union #63.

They began traveling around the country recruiting members, the dues of which were a nickel a year. The payment was collected at the yearly Conventions where a King, Queen, Prince, Princess, and Grand Head Pipe of the Hoboes would be elected.

The Union Is Legitimized

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The union created its code of ethics at their annual convention in 1887. These laws more clearly set hoboes apart from tramps and bums and set a standard for themselves and those interested in entering. First on the list was what got them there in the first place: don’t let another person control you.

Ironically, the list continued with rules about how they should all act. Hoboes should be clean and act respectfully. They shouldn’t get so drunk or greedy that they negatively impact another hobo. They should always work jobs no one else wants to do, which ultimately makes hoboes incredibly talented and valuable individuals.

Don’t get too excited. They had a dark side.

Here’s The Real Reason They Needed A Code Of Ethics

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Known as “wolves”, certain hoboes would take advantage of young kids who were trying to adapt to the hobo lifestyle. Since the hobo culture relied heavily upon mentorship, it was commonplace for elders to teach their ways to new members of the group. The authoritative position put children in a vulnerable position.

Thus, rule 13 demanded that hoboes not harm children, and that improper conduct be reported to the authorities. Furthermore, hoboes should persuade children to return home, help one another, and be apart of the court that punishes violators.

The Hobo Community Had Low-Lives Too

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At this point, hoboes were enough of a society of their own to be the ones doing the ostracizing. Those who broke the code of ethics were called a “buzzard” and forbidden from campsites and hobo towns. Specifically, “jungle buzzards” didn’t pitch in and ate off others. According to Merriam-Webster, a “buzzard” is literally a hawklike bird that soars in circles eyeing its prey. The word is also interchangeable with “vulture.”

“Yeggs” were thieves who stole from hoboes while they slept, called “high-jacking.” Sound familiar? There are a lot more words we got from them we’ll look at later on.

The Hobo Capital Of The World

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By the turn of the century, animosity towards hoboes was rapidly turning into recognition of their needs. “The main stem” referred to a neighborhood designated for hobos by the city itself and began populating some of the most metropolitan cities in the nation. New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Baltimore, and Chicago all had places for hoboes to stay for a low fee.

West Madison, the main stem in Chicago, became known as the Hobo Capital of the World. According to author Carleton Parker, hoboes would save up for the winter so that they could stay in friendly West Madison through its cold season.

Flophouses: Worse Than Jail

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© Bettmann/CORBIS/Bettmann Archive via Getty Images

While main stems were cheap and a fun atmosphere for a hobo, they came at a large figurative price. The cheap sleeping spaces were called “flophouses” and were little more than a place to flop. Some didn’t even have beds. Apart from sleeping on the floor, some also only had cubicles rather than rooms.

“Flophouses” were disgusting, riddled with diseases and rats. Also, cheap and disease-inducing, prostitutes landed hoboes in jail and with venereal disease, where they could at least escape the flophouses.

Then hoboes got classy.

Hoboes Go To College

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Hobo James Eads How started The International Brotherhood Welfare Association in 1905, setting up hobo colleges in Buffalo, Philadelphia, and San Francisco, to name just a few. These colleges provided hoboes with room and board, on top of free classes, arguably the most necessary of which was on venereal disease prevention.

Classes also included various forms of law and social science. These colleges, like colleges today, allowed its students better access to jobs. Though they weren’t accredited, they provided undereducated hoboes a way to learn basic life skills, as well as reliable job information.

Hoboes Make The News — Literally

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Photo Collection Alexander Alland, Sr./CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

As if How wasn’t enough of a hobo role-model already, he also launched Hobo Jungle Scout, renamed Hobo News, in 1913. The photo above is an actual picture of a man reading Hobo News, the title visible on the cover page.

Though it looks exactly like a typical newspaper, it included poems and personal essays, in addition to journalistic pieces on hobo life and job information. It did reach a circulation of 20,000 readers, which goes to show how large the hobo community had become in half a century.

Hoboes Made Their Own Language

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Linda Hughes points out that many hoboes couldn’t read or write, having hardly any educational background. As a result, communication between hoboes outside of one another’s presence could only be achieved through an agreed-upon system of symbols.

The markings were placed on posts of all kinds– even bridges and welcome signs– and were a way for hoboes leaving an area to communicate to the hoboes that would be arriving in that same area. Symbols would indicate suggestions about food and shelter, and whether or not the town was safe.

Words And Phrases We Got From Hoboes

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Photo Collection Alexander Alland, Sr./CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Nels Anderson’s Glossary of Hobo Terms indicates phrases formed from hoboes, many of which are still in everyday modern use. “Main drag” hoboes used to refer to the town’s busy road. “Moochers” were professional beggars. “Graveyard shift” is work late at night. “Coffee” became “Joe,” food,” “chow,” and drug addicts “junkies.”

Young hobos used to be called “cats,” which later referred to a young man, and now is commonly termed “cool cat.” Not so cool is that the term “crummy” came from lice-infested hobos.