20 Cryptic Hobo Symbols And The Secret Meanings Behind Them

Image: Col. Albert S. Evans

Back in the mid-19th century, a new class of Americans emerged: hobos. Unlike derogatory terms such as “tramp,” the word “hobo” referred to a nomadic individual who traveled around different cities in search of work. However, life on the road could be dangerous. And as such, the community developed a series of symbols that they could mark on buildings and roads. These would indicate, for instance, safe places to camp, or areas where work was available. But to the untrained eye, they no doubt appeared incredibly cryptic, or indeed, meaningless. In fact, each and every symbol, no matter how simple, had its very own mysterious meaning…

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20. A cross inside a circle

Many hobo symbols are simple and similar for a reason. Indeed, as Susan Kare, Macintosh icons designer, put it, they originally had to be “clear to a group of people who were not going to be studying these for years in academia.” A basic cross inside a circle, for instance, indicated that handouts were available there.

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19. A ¾ circle with lines

There are two variations of this particular symbol. Indeed, one has the lines on the left, while the other has lines on the right. And it was crucial for hobos to know the difference between the two, because they had completely opposite meanings. In fact, lines on the left meant the owner of a property was in, while lines on the right meant they were out.

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18. A cat

Like most hobo symbols, this didn’t need to be the most picturesque drawing of all time. Indeed, as long as the symbol vaguely represented a cat, with a head, body, legs, whiskers, and a tail, the message would be the same: a kind resident lived at the house it was scrawled outside.

17. A “T”

This wasn’t just a couple of lines, but two rectangles drawn in a way that resembled the letter “T.” And if you were to come across them as a hobo, you’d know they meant that there was food available where it was drawn – but only in exchange for work.

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16. A cross

If you saw a simple cross, you might assume it had religious connotations. And you’d be right. In the hobo symbol world, it translated to a free meal, for the price of sitting through a religious talk. No matter your faith, though, that seems like a small price to pay for food in that situation.

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15. Two diamonds


Not all hobo symbols were to do with food, or directly talking about people who live at a given property. Sometimes, they could just be basic warnings to fellow hobos, such as this pair of diamonds. Indeed, if you were to see this symbol while traveling, it would simply mean, “Keep quiet.”

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14. Three diagonal lines

Another, more serious warning, these three diagonal lines signified that the location was a dangerous place to be. You can imagine that while they would have been worrisome to see as a hobo, you’d also be very grateful to whoever had left them there. After all, you’d then know not to hang about for too long.

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13. A triangle with hands


Calling the outcroppings on this triangle “hands” may be a bit of a stretch, but it doesn’t matter. What mattered was knowing what the symbol meant, because it could have been the difference between life and death. Indeed, it was another warning – this time, that a gun-owner lived at the place it appeared.

12. Two over ten

Hobo symbols didn’t get much more cryptic than this. After all, seeing a fraction could have conjured up all kinds of thoughts about numbers and their meanings. But the real meaning was actually totally removed from the fraction. In fact, it simply meant that you should watch out for thieves in the area.

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11. A top hat and a triangle


Not all hobo symbols were indicative of the exact person who lived at a given address. Indeed, some simply referred to the economic status of the neighborhood, so a hobo had an idea of the chances of finding help there. A top hat and a triangle, for instance, pointed to a wealthy area.

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10. Two interlocked circles

Some hobo symbols weren’t quite as cryptic as others. Indeed, they could occasionally be completely on the nose, such as these two interlocked circles, which literally symbolized handcuffs. Yes, they were actually a warning that any hobos found in the area would be jailed. So, anyone who saw this symbol knew to stay away.

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9. A shovel


Not all hobo symbols were dire warnings. In fact, they could often point to positive things about certain places. A shovel scrawled on to a surface, for instance, indicated that work could be found there. And it’s a fairly obvious symbol, too, representing the manual labor often done by hobos.

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8. The letter “M”

Really, a single letter could stand for anything – and in this case, it doesn’t even begin with an “M.” Yes, this cryptic symbol meant that any hobos should try telling a “hard luck” story at the location it was marked. Presumably, then, the people around there were more likely to offer their sympathy.


7. Four horizontal lines

Often, it’s the simplest hobo symbols that have the most specific meanings. Four horizontal lines on top of each other could have been anything. But it actually meant that there was a housewife at that address who would offer food in exchange for doing chores. Cryptic, no doubt, but very useful for any hobos to know.


6. A tic-tac-toe grid

You could also refer to this cryptic hobo symbol as a straight hash, but either way, the meaning behind it was still the same. Yes, it was a warning to anyone passing by who was familiar with the symbol that a police officer resided there. Which, of course, may have meant it was a place you’d want to avoid as a hobo. Conversely, it could also have been a neighborhood you’d feel safe in.


5. A circle with an arrow in front

Knowing the difference between similar signs was a big part of hobo communication. A circle with an arrow, for example, could either denote the right or wrong way to go. The difference was in whether the arrow was in front of or behind the circle. If it was the former, then it meant there was no point going that way.


4. An upside-down triangle

Hobo symbols could often be indicators of the best places for hobos to travel. In this case, an upside-down triangle meant that the road ahead was “spoiled.” This meant that there were already many other hobos along that route. Anyone hoping to find a place without other hobos, then, should have looked elsewhere.

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3. A squiggly line


Just as there were symbols to indicate wealthy areas, there were also others that pointed to places where there was no hope of a hobo finding help. Indeed, a squiggly line simply meant that poor people lived at that address. If any hobo should have seen it, they would have known not to waste their time.

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2. A train

Again, this didn’t have to be an artistic masterpiece. As long as the symbol clearly communicated the idea of a train, then other hobos would know that it marked a way to catch one. After all, hitching a ride at a station without a ticket wasn’t really feasible, so knowing where best to board could be a big help.


1. Two “W”s crossed over

Chances are, hobos looking for somewhere to hunker down for the night weren’t looking to draw attention to themselves. This symbol, then, could help them achieve that by warning them about any barking dogs in the vicinity. After all, a loud pooch could easily have given the game away.