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May 22, 2024 14 mins

By definition hobos are people who travel from town to town taking odd jobs as they go. But some towns are friendlier than others, and hobos developed a system of symbols they left one another to know what to expect from a town.

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Speaker 1 (00:04):
Hey, and welcome to the short Stuff. I'm Josh, and
there's Chuck. What are you gonna do about it? Short stuff?

Speaker 2 (00:10):
Yeah, this is called outdated names for people.

Speaker 1 (00:14):
Addition, I guess so i'd love so. A lot of
this came from the NSA, the National Security Agency, Yeah,
the one that's been spying on Americans for decades now, okay,
and they basically hid behind hoboes when they were talking
about tramps and bumbs, which I assume is what you're

talking about. But they're like, according to hoboes, this is
what this means.

Speaker 2 (00:40):
Yeah. Yeah, these are old terms used back then. So
just know we're not suggesting that anyone call an unhoused
person a bum or a tramp.

Speaker 1 (00:49):
No, But specifically, the NSA says that hobos. Say specifically
that a hobo is a traveling itinerant worker who wants
to work, who also loves to travel. And the way
that they put it is a hobo travels to work
and works to travel frequently. They're working so they can
save up enough to tide them over through the winter,

which they'll take off then they'll get back on the road.
They travel by train, by car, however they can we
talked about them in the hitchhiking episode, if I remember correctly. Yeah,
and then according to the NSA, According to hoboes, the
difference between a tramp and a hobo and a bum
and a hobo is that a tramp is also a traveler,

but they don't like to work. It don't work. And
then a bum again according to hoboes, according to the NSA,
neither travels nor works. So there you go. Thanks for
putting that all on me.

Speaker 2 (01:46):
Well, I mean you're the one that put this one together.
We got to talk about it.

Speaker 1 (01:51):
You can't get around.

Speaker 2 (01:53):
Hoboes is what we're going to concentrate on specifically, as
you'll see in a minute here, hobo signs. But the
word hobo itself, no one's really sure where that comes from.
There are a bunch of ideas, as always as to
its origin. Some you know, as usual, make more sense
than others. For real, one is h oe ho boy. Like,

if you were traveling around working, you might have some
farming tools like a hoe, so you might have been
a hoe boy, which could have become hobo. I say
that this may be not so great.

Speaker 1 (02:25):
Oh you're crazy. That's my number one. Oh yeah mm hmm,
all right, what's what Okay, what's your let me hear
your pick. Then what's the what's the Where the word
hobo come from?

Speaker 2 (02:35):
Well, I mean, if I was picking just from this list,
I would go with because this did start after the
Civil War, when there were soldiers who either wanted to
go home and would hop a train or didn't want
to go home and would hop a train in the
other direction. But homeward bound h o bo makes a
little more sense to me.

Speaker 1 (02:56):
Sure, No, I would put that one at second.

Speaker 2 (02:59):
That's number two.

Speaker 1 (03:00):
We have to at least name check the other one
real quick.

Speaker 2 (03:02):

Speaker 1 (03:04):
So there's one that says that it was basically a
shortened version of Hello Boy, just a friendly greeting, and
that that came to low boy and then low bo
and then hobo.

Speaker 2 (03:18):

Speaker 1 (03:20):
I think that's a terrible idea as well. But it's
hilarious to just say those different words in progression.

Speaker 2 (03:25):
Yeah. I would also say it's probably not a Latin
thing in origin, but there are some people who say
it's from the Latin homo bonus, meaning a good man.
I don't think it's that one.

Speaker 1 (03:38):
Yeah, I didn't. So when somebody's saying like bonus in
the nineties, they were saying like good, I guess it
never occurred to me that they were speaking Latin.

Speaker 2 (03:47):
Sure, I'm sure that's what was going on.

Speaker 1 (03:49):
So well, let's just set up what we're really talking
about here today, Chuck. We're talking about hobo signs, as
I believe you said. And so one thing that hobo's
have in common is that they like to travel. They
very frequently prefer solitude, and yet they have a camaraderie
with one another. So when you're traveling as you're a

hobo and you're going from like town to town and
you're saying, like, hey, where can I get work? Where
can I get a free meal or something like that,
you're met varyingly with different kinds of attitudes. Yeah, and
those attitudes are probably going to stay roughly the same
over you know, shortish spans of time at least. So,
because you care about other hoboes and because you don't

really meet up with them very frequently, you would leave
a sign. And this is what became hobo signs. There
were signs that a hobo left for another hobo basically
saying like this is a great place to get a
free meal, stay away from this house because this is
where the local cop lives. All sorts of really useful
information and over time, essentially a codified system developed.

Speaker 2 (04:56):
Fantastic, What a great setup.

Speaker 1 (04:59):
Thank you. I appreciate that.

Speaker 2 (05:01):
All Right, we'll take a break and we'll be right
back to talk about what was on these signs right
after this.

Speaker 1 (05:19):
Okay, so we talked about hobo signs, and we're going
to start talking about that again beginning now.

Speaker 2 (05:25):
Yeah, like you mentioned, you know, hobo's lived a very early,
fairly solitary life. I guess they would hook up with
friends every now and then. But the fact that you're
traveling around and you're not all congregating in a big
group to tell one another like hey, this next town
you're coming upon, X, Y and Z, you should know
they would leave these signs. They were temporary on purpose. Basically,

they were like chark or charcoal, because, like you said,
some certain people might have certain attitudes about someone coming
through town looking for work. There are changes in attitudes.

Speaker 1 (06:03):
Oh no, I'm not going to do it, thank you,
all right.

Speaker 2 (06:07):
Pjmy Buffett and the person who lived in that farmhouse
last year may have been super helpful and need some help,
but maybe a year later they didn't, so that sign
would need to be changed. So that's just sort of
a clumsy way of saying, Hey, let's not make these
signs permanent because they need to change to convey the

most recent information exactly.

Speaker 1 (06:31):
And so the signs, some of the signs that they
developed just make intuitive sense. Like there's a top hat
that was the sign that a wealthy person lived there. Yeah,
a train engine would be a good spot to mark
a train. And this one I'm kind of puzzled by
because you wouldn't actually find out if it was a
good spot until you were successful or not. If you
were unsuccessful, you wouldn't go back and leave that sign

that it was a good spot. If you were successful,
you wouldn't be there anymore to leave the sign that
it was a good spot. I just find that a
head scratcher. But more often than not, Oh, there was
another one across said that if you you know, gin
up some religious talk with people who live here, they'll
give you a free meal.

Speaker 2 (07:11):
I love that one more often.

Speaker 1 (07:13):
Than not, though they they didn't really have any intuitive
connection to what they were conveying. The symbols.

Speaker 2 (07:19):
Yeah, that cross one is really great, because at some
point some hobo was not having much luck with the
lady of the house, and then they started talking about
Jesus and she was like, would you like a slice
of pie?

Speaker 1 (07:34):

Speaker 2 (07:34):
The guy's like, oh, okay, I got you.

Speaker 1 (07:36):
Apparently George Washington was like that, but with horses instead
of religious talk.

Speaker 2 (07:41):
I'm not going to believe anything you ever say anymore, So.

Speaker 1 (07:43):
That one is true. That's a story from Gilbert Stewart,
the famous portraitist, who couldn't get him to become at all, like,
like to smile at all, And apparently his horse walked by,
and all of a sudden, George Washington just started beaming
and talking about his horse and horses in general. So
Gilbert Stewart knew that for the rest of the sitting
he would just bring up horses, and George Washington would

just be up and chipper.

Speaker 2 (08:07):
Yeah, he said, let me flash a smile, let me
see those pearly brown waters. So all right, so you
mentioned a few things that made sense, like the top
the top hat and stuff like that, but there were
also a lot of symbols in this code that you know.
It was sort of the symbol of the hobo that

if you just look at it, it's not intuitive. For instance,
a picture of a chicken that someone has drawn, you
might think, hey, this might be a place where I
could get some chicken. Yeah no, no, no, that means
you can use the telephone for free.

Speaker 1 (08:43):
Right, boxy you is a good camping spot. Some are
just like where did you get this? The sideways cross
cross on its side on a circle in one of
the quadrants, the top quadrant, and then and the circle
has three dots inside, and that means that there's a
doctor that lives there, and you won't charge for medical attention.

I like, where would you possibly come up with that?

Speaker 2 (09:10):
I don't know. I tried to make sense. I'm sure
you did two of a lot of these, And I
wonder if some of them did make sense to the
creator or if it was just literally like, hey we
need something.

Speaker 1 (09:20):
Yeah, I get Maybe they just kept adding to it.
They were like, well, this one will be a sideways cross.
They're like, no, that's already means there's a Satanist that
lives there. Okay, Well what about a sideways cross top
of the circle. That's a Satanist who loves to talk
too much?

Speaker 2 (09:33):

Speaker 1 (09:33):
What about one with three dots, and they're like, okay,
doctor who doesn't charge for medical advice.

Speaker 2 (09:37):
Uh, yeah, that's a good one. That's a real one,
right that.

Speaker 1 (09:41):
Yeah, that was the one.

Speaker 2 (09:41):
I was Oh that sideways cross right right right, Okay.
So there's also a circle next to a square. Each
of them has a dot in the middle, and that
means that the man of the house has a bad temper.

Speaker 1 (09:53):
M h pretty, steer clear, pretty good words.

Speaker 2 (09:56):

Speaker 1 (09:56):
A lot of these were like steer clear or go here.
They had like an extra little layer of information too. Yeah.

Speaker 2 (10:04):
The only one that made any sense was the three
perpendicular diagonal lines.

Speaker 1 (10:08):
Oh, that made sense.

Speaker 2 (10:09):
Was unsafe. I just thought it might mean like three
strikes is usually a bad thing, Okay, but I don't know.
That's just a guess. Okay, that made more sense than
any of the rest of them. I think.

Speaker 1 (10:19):
So where these signs came from is just completely lost
to history. Although some people are like, I can tell
you exactly where it came from, we should probably say
at this point there are some people who don't believe
that there ever actually was a codified roughly fifty signs
that hobo's used to leave to one another. There's a

group called the Historical Graffiti Society that Atlas Obscure profiled
some years back. And these people search for those things
and they're like, I wish this would I would be
proven wrong because I want to find them. I've never
found anything like that. They think that it's possible that
the whole thing was generated by early twentieth century media

fascination with hobo and the hobo lifestyle.

Speaker 2 (11:06):
Oh that is I mean, I thought that reading of
it was right, but they're just saying that it was
just a creation of media.

Speaker 1 (11:13):
Yeah, So they trace it back even further to there
was a famous hobo I can't remember his name, but
he wrote a series of like fantastic books that were
really popular, and they think that the signs were introduced
in there. To me, that doesn't mean that the whole
thing was made up right, right.

Speaker 2 (11:27):
You know?

Speaker 1 (11:28):
I think that that like possibly it wasn't nearly as codified.
But they're like, we've never found a single one. And
we found like they found some in chalk that are
one hundred years old, but they don't bear a resemblance
to this. Instead, it's usually the first letter of whatever
direction they were traveling. Yeah, their nickname and then maybe
the year or the date that's a genuine, documented, verified

hobo signs. Hobo's definitely used those one hundred plus years ago.

Speaker 2 (11:56):
Well, speaking of nicknames, we kind of have to mention
one thing, right, yeah, yeah, so yeah. John Hodgman, a
writer of books and podcaster of the Judge John Hodgman podcast,
very famously created eight hundred hobo names in one of
his books. And I figured we could just go through

a couple of these. Do you have a list by
any chance? No? I have them all memorized, Okay, Chili mixed,
Wilma Benson, that's not bad, flea stick, uh, Tommy Lyce Combey,

let me see. Let me do one more, how about
prostate davy. So Hodgman came up with eight hundred names.
That was I've never talked to him about that. I
imagine that was arduous, and I'm sure he never wanted
to do that again because I think he also had
people for years saying to create a hobo name for
them and stuff like that.

Speaker 1 (13:01):
Yeah, for sure, and you'd be like, no, I'm not
doing that. Yeah.

Speaker 2 (13:05):
Fun stuff.

Speaker 1 (13:05):
Though, Just to wrap it up, there was an actual like,
there was documented hobo signs. That seem to have generated organically,
and that it was called war chalking, And essentially it
came about in a very specific period of time in
the early two thousands, when Wi Fi started to become ubiquitous,

but free Wi Fi was very hard to find, and
so a hobo would find some place where somebody had
like a Wi Fi router that didn't understand how to
add like a security key to it, and so there
was just free Wi Fi. So they would leave a
little mark for other hobos to say, like, you can
get free Wi Fi here. And then as people started

to get savvier and added security to their routers, that
kind of went away, but simultaneously, free Wi Fi zones
like in some cities now are just completely wired up
with free Wi Fi. Like that kind of grew in
its place. So the whole premise of war chalking lives
in a very very small window of time. I just

find that fascinating interesting.

Speaker 2 (14:09):
I love it.

Speaker 1 (14:10):
I love it to chuck and I love the short stuff,
and the short stuff is out. Stuff you should Know
is a production of iHeartRadio.

Speaker 2 (14:22):
For more podcasts my heart Radio, visit the iHeartRadio app,
Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen to your favorite shows,

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