What is a Hobo?

“A hobo is a person who chooses to live a wanderlust life-style with no regrets.”

   (Frog via the book One More Train to Ride, Clifford Williams, 2003 )


Two hobos walking along a traintrack, the closer one carrying a bindle. Unknown Date, Library of Congress


The origin of the word, “hobo” is unknown, but most accepted theories date the term to the creation of the railroads and the American Civil War. One argues that veterans, who were “homebound,” abbreviated the word to “hobo.” Another argues that transient laborers who rode the rails often carried garden hoes. Onlookers called them “hoe-boys,” which eventually abbreviated to “hobo.”

An overview of hoboes and footage of them hopping trains, 1931, WPA Film Library


“Many of the veterans of the war had lost their homes, their families, and their worldly possessions. Their lives had been terribly changed and thousands of them began wandering, looking in other parts of the nation for a new life, a future.”  (Tales of the Iron Road, Maury Graham, 1990)

“They were the ‘transients,’ men vainly wandering from coast to coast, happily grabbing at the flimsiest rumor that someone was hiring in the next town or the next state.”(Tales of the Iron Road, Maury Graham, 1990)

A poster to promote New Yorkers to head to Illinois for work, 1853, Collector's Weekly


Hobos choose to live a migratory lifestyle. They roam from town to town primarily by hopping train cars. They support themselves by working temporary jobs like harvesting crops. In exchange for work they often receive money, food or shelter.

Transient workers laying rail track down, Unknown Date, Collector's Weekly


Anyone could become a hobo regardless of their background, gender, or race. Women hobos, “Bo-ettes,” often dressed like men and carried weapons while on the road to avoid harassment.

“Sex, poverty, habits and degree of skill have nothing whatever to do with classifying individuals as hobos; the character of his work does that. “(The Hobo, Nels Anderson, 1923)

First: A woman and another person hopping a train headed towards Miami, 1938, Walter Hale, Library of Congress

Second: Writer Ernest Hemingway flipping a train, 1916, Wikipedia

Third: Lou Ambers catching out, 1935, Collector's Weekly


Hobos consider themselves different from “tramps” and “bums.” A tramp is a transient worker who walks or hitchhikes to new locations. They work most of the time for what they receive. A bum is a person that does not travel often and relies on handouts for food and money.

“When it’s cold outdoors, a tramp takes a newspaper and stuffs it down his shirt to stay warm. A hobo does the same thing, but he reads it first. There’s a hierarchy. The difference is in the willingness to work and be self-reliant. Hoboes are the elite of society’s basement.” (Adman via  via the book One More Train to Ride, Clifford Williams, 2003 )


Thesis
The Code of the Road

A transient worker in California that relies on walking to jobs, Dorothea Lange, 1938