Lost America: Hobo Signs

Buy From Amazon

The classic hobo with the stick upon which a rag has been tied to keep his belongings is not nearly as prevalent as he was during the glory days of the hobo in the 1890’s, but there are still a few hardy souls out there hopping trains. And, just in case you weren’t aware, there is actually a name for that stick with the rag tied to the end. It’s called a bindle. That is a piece of trivia that just might win you an extra few hundred bucks if you ever appear on Jeopardy. The hobo has gone the way of much of Americana, like an entire night of watchable network TV and Republican politicians who aren’t believable candidates for being the antichrist. Back in the days when the railroad was the primary locomotive system for getting things across this country (and if you have ever been run over by a hit and run maniac driving an 18 wheeler like me you can only hope that someday a President will actually be moved to revamp the rail system in this country) men and more women than you might imagine managed to criss-cross this country. In their travels they would leave behind certain signs that guided hobos who would follow them in their tracks.

A hobo coming across a simple cross shaped written in chalk on a wall near a mission or church would instantly know that free food was available. Well, not entirely free; the price for getting a warm meal would be sitting through a sermon. Depending on the intensity of the sermon, many hobos probably would have been more than willing to shell out some change for the privilege of eating without having to listen to how they were going to hell. Another common sign that hobos left behind was an arch with a dot beneath it. Any hobo still hitching a ride on a train who saw this sign would be inclined to stay aboard and move on to the next city upon seeing that particular sign since it signals that the law enforcement authorities there aren’t particularly open to the hobo spirit.

If there was no arch with a dot and the hobo got off in that particular municipality and found a strange little sign that looked like a comb inside a triangle with three teeth coming up from the bottom into the spaces between the teeth of the comb it meant that visitors should beware of what they termed a bone polisher. What is a bone polisher, you ask? A vicious dog. A lifestyle that consisted of stealing hot pies off window sills and a fresh pair of underwear from off the line meant that knowing where the big dogs were could become a matter of life and death.

In many towns it is still possible to find these signs on older buildings and residential fences. They are a disappearing breed, however, and that’s too bad because they speak to a kind of lost lifestyle. Hobos were not, as many people think, just a bunch of lazy bums. Especially during their heyday in the late 1800’s hobos were actually a kind of migrant worker and it has been estimated that among the massive crews harvesting wheat during this period in America’s history that hobos made up roughly one-third of them.