Although cryptic signs have existed for a very long time, hobo symbols have only been around in America since the 19th century in comparison to its European counterpart who’s lifespan stretch back to the 14th century.
Hobos were migrant workers who, most famously, roamed around the United States in the 19th and 20th century, often appearing in the American railroading scene. The number of hobos was at their highest during the Great Depression (1929–1939). With no work and no prospects at home, many decided to try their luck elsewhere.
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The life of a hobo was dangerous, often met with hostility and violence among authorities, train crews, railroad staff and regular civilians. The scarcity of food and work would often result in door-to-door begging before they continued their migration.
As a way of managing the uncertainties of the hobo life, hobos invented a simple and clear visual system to provide directions, information or warnings effectively to other fellow hobos. Markings of these symbols would be made on buildings, fences, trees, signs, railroad line side equipment, bridge abutments — anywhere a message could signal help or trouble.