I am not too sure of when I had my first taste of wanderlust, but I can recall reading Jack London and Jack Kerouac during my formative years, and feeling the itch for the open road. Either way, here I am today—still smitten with touring the world, and reading stories about traveling. It seems a natural extension that I would become interested in that era of the American epoch when hitching a ride on the rails and living an itinerant life seemed as natural as breathing. I am talking of the hobo’s life, of course.
Imagine my surprise, then, when looking through Carl G. Liungman’s Dictionary of Symbols (we have a copy on the Telephone Reference Wheel) only to discover that the American hobos had their own language of symbols that they would use to pass information on to fellow travelers. These graffiti-like signs would be scrawled on walls, fences, posts, and railways—a subterranean means of communication between the initiated for the utility of surviving life on the road (Mr. Liungman also has entries on the English and Swedish hobo signs, and points to their similarities and differences).
I found the utility, as well as the oddity, of these symbols intriguing, and I am not the only one, as academia has taken up the study of dissecting hobo signs, and the language has even been featured in Hollywood (anyone that is familiar with the show Mad Men may have seen the episode from the first season entitled "The Hobo Code" in which this vagabond pictorial language is given a center-stage role...). There are even some funny, "modern" hobo signs floating around the Internet, for today’s hipster hobo.
While doing research on hobo signs I could not help but see the similarities between the messages that both they and the Enoch Pratt Free Library’s own hobo-like sign convey: This squiggly emblem symbolizes the meandering path that is often undertaken when seeking out information, emphasizing the journey, as well as the beginning and ending points. Hence our motto: "your journey starts here."
Interested in learning more about the hobo lifestyle? Here are some sources for you to check out:
- If you’re wanting a historical or first person perspective of this time in America, we have plenty of books, including: Done and Been: Steel Rail Chronicles of American Hobos by one Gypsy Moon.
- I would be remiss not to include some folk heroes who spent time on the
rails, including Woody Guthrie’s autobiography Bound for Glory, or
Wallace Stegner’s novel Joe Hill.
- If you want to learn the origins of such phrases as "chicken
feed" (meaning "small change") or "angle," then check out the reference
book we have in our Humanities collection entitled American Tramp and Underworld Slang by Godfrey Irwin. Not only will it have you speaking
like an old-timey hobo, but it includes lyrics to tramp songs!
- Jack Black’s You Can't Win focuses on the darker element of the vagabond
lifestyle, and was heralded by William S. Burroughs as an inspiration.
- Here is a nice article over at Vice Magazine about the state of American hobos today.
- Also, if you get a chance, check out the Bill Daniel’s documentary Who is Bozo Texino?