Introduction: What is a Hobo?

When you hear the word “hobo,” you may first think of the homeless people that you see on the street. However, the title of hobos is much more than just a description of a person without a home. Hobos are a subculture that emerged in the United States in the late 19th century and continued into the mid-20th century.

Hobos are nomadic people who travel around the country in search of work and adventure. Many hobos traveled by hopping on trains and “riding the rails” as a means of transportation. This way of life has been romanticized in books, movies, and music throughout the years, but there is much more to the hobo lifestyle than just jumping trains.

History and Origins of the Hobo Subculture

The origins of the hobo subculture have been traced back to the late 1800s when the railroad system was expanding rapidly in the US. Many people were left without jobs or homes, and they began taking to the trains to travel freely and search for work. It wasn’t long before a culture of “train hoppers” emerged, and these people eventually became known as hobos.

Hobos formed their own unique communities in the train yards and across the country, with their language, customs, and codes. The code of the hobo was created as a means of communication between each other and to warn others of danger. The symbols would be drawn on fences, posts, and walls, alerting other hobos of where they could find food and water, as well as dangers such as hostile police officers or railroad bulls.

The Hobo Way of Life

Hobos lived by a strict code of conduct, and it was essential to their survival that they followed these guidelines. For instance, stealing from other hobos was unacceptable, and hobos would share what little they had with those in need.

A hobo’s life was unpredictable, and it was essential to be resourceful. Advancements in technology and the industrialization of America meant there were more job opportunities, but the competition for these jobs was fierce. Hobos learned to improvise and adapt to situations as they arose.

Traveling was a fundamental part of a hobo’s way of life, and many spent decades traveling across the country. They would hop trains, hitchhike, or even walk to get from place to place. Hobos often formed close-knit communities, and many were known as “Jungles,” a term used to describe the shantytowns that were often erected in cities where many hobos would congregate.

Hobo Culture and Popularity

The notion of the hobo was popularized in American culture by writers such as Jack London and John Steinbeck, who wrote books that romanticized their way of life. Woody Guthrie and other folk singers wrote songs about the hobo, and their music became a representation of the hobo’s culture across the country.

Despite the romanticism of the hobo life, the reality was that it was a harsh way of life. Many hobos suffered from illness, injury, and poverty. They faced many dangers, such as train accidents and encounters with hostile individuals.

As the country modernized and the railroad system changed, the hobo way of life began to decline. However, the legacy of the hobo subculture lives on, and their contributions to the American culture continue to be appreciated.


The history and culture of the hobo subculture illustrate the diverse makeup of America’s history. Despite facing harsh realities, hobos embraced their unique way of life and created a community that was both resourceful and resilient. While the hobo way of life may be a thing of the past, their legacy lives on, and their story serves as a testament to the spirit of American perseverance.

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