Everyone’s familiar with hobos — nomads who moved from town to town looking for work. But few are familiar with the finer points of being a hobo. For example, do you know how hobos helped each other out in the days before web forums and text messaging?

As it turned out, hard-working hobos developed their own language of symbols to communicate with their fellow nomads. And though the symbols —including these 20 — took little artistic skill to draw, each was packed full of powerful meaning.

When hobos created a communication system, it needed to be simple, so that anyone could learn it, and discreet, so that non-hobos wouldn’t catch on. Ultimately, they settled on a handful of unique symbols…

1. An X: Breathe easy, hobo. An X means everything’s all right. This symbol must have been a relief for so many travelers to see! Other symbols, however, were a little more foreboding…

2. Two diamonds: A hobo spotting this sign knew to keep his or her mouth shut. It meant “keep quiet” and those who disturbed the locals were in for trouble. Ominous? Yes — but not like this next symbol.

3. A triangle with branches: Get ready for more danger. This symbol sprawled near a house meant approaching hobos better be careful. The homeowner carried a gun and wasn’t afraid to show it.

4. Three diagonal lines: Danger. Any smart hobo who spotted this symbol would turn on his heels and hop on to the next passing train. You didn’t want to find out if the symbol referred to gangs or trigger-happy locals.

5. A cat: Hobos scrawled a cat, or at least something with whiskers and a tail that vaguely resembled a cat, on homes where kind people lived. The home was a good place to find human compassion.

6. A ¾ circle with lines: Think of it like an omega symbol with the opening pointing left or right. Left meant the property owner was home; pointing right meant the opposite. He or she was away.

7. Rectangles in a T: Good fortune was in the future of any hobo who saw this symbol. It meant he or she could find food there — in exchange for work, of course.

8. An upside-down triangle: Sometimes, too much of a good thing is a bad thing, and that’s what this symbol meant. Too many hobos visited the nearby area, and it was “spoiled” — there was no more work.

9. A cross: Not to be confused with the T-shaped rectangles, a cross on the side of a building meant visitors earned a free meal if they sat through a religious talk, like a sermon or conversion effort.

Sweet Home Missionary Baptist Church

10. A train: Ever try hopping on to a moving train? It’s tough, and that’s why hobos helped each other out with a symbol of a little cart, which denoted a good place to hitch a ride on a passing locomotive.

11. A triangle with a top hat: Who wears top hats? Caricatures of the wealthy, of course! This symbol outside a town or neighborhood indicated the residents were more well-to-do.

12. A squiggly line: Conversely, this symbol indicated the locals were poor. They likely didn’t have any money to share or food to give to nomads. There was nothing there for the hobo.

13. A shovel: It doesn’t take one well-versed in hobo languages to understand this symbol. It meant that they could find work —manual labor, but work — where it was drawn.

14. Four horizontal lines: Manual labor not really your thing? Four lines meant a woman was willing to cook a meal for someone who did a few chores around the house.

15. A cross inside a circle: See this symbol on the side of a church or someone’s home indicated inhabitants were likely to give handouts — food, clothes, that sort of thing.

16. Two over ten: Stop and do math! Just kidding. This fraction thrown up on a wall meant thieves roamed the area, so protect your coins and belongings — else you’d soon be looking for a cross inside a circle!

17. The letter M: Got a tragic background? The best place to tell it was a house marked with this symbol, which indicated residents often sympathized with a sad story. Sympathy meant food.

18. Two horizontal lines intersected by two vertical: Conversely, seeing this symbol on a house told you to take your sob story somewhere else. A police officer lived there, and he wouldn’t take kindly to hobos knocking.  

19. Two interlocked circles: Forget knocking! Just look out for Johnny Law. Representing handcuffs, this symbol warned passing hobos that police officers would arrest them on sight. Better keep moving.

20. A circle with an arrow: If the arrow started on the outside of the circle, the symbol meant “go this way.” If it went through the circle, it meant “don’t go this way.” That’s life on the road!

It’s impressive hobos were able to learn the meanings behind all these symbols while on the move. No doubt, they came in handy!

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