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A hobo sits against a fence with his dog. Hoboken, New Jersey. Circa 1910
Library of Congress/Flickr
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An elderly hobo walks through a field carrying a heavy pack. Australia. Circa 1901.Wikimedia Commons
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A group of men in suits gather around a table full of food at a hobo convention in Cincinnati, Ohio. 1912.Library of Congress
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The Hobo Conference in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 1923. Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
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A man in a hobo jungle in Minneapolis, Minnesota kills a turtle to make soup. 1939.Wikimedia Commons
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Florence Owens Thompson, also known as "Migrant Mother" in Dorothea Lange's iconic photo, sits in a makeshift tent at a pea pickers camp in Nipomo, California. 1936.
Dorothea Lange/Wikimedia Commons
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A hobo in ragged clothing sits on a fence. Napa, California. Circa 1920.Wikimedia Commons
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A hobo “jungle” along a riverfront in St. Louis, Missouri. 1936
Library of Congress
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Men wash dishes at the Hotel de Gink, a hotel for "hobos" and itinerant workers located at Centre and Worth Streets near the Bowery, New York. 1915.
Flickr and The New York Times via Library of Cpngress
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James Eads Howe, founder of the International Brotherhood Welfare Association, an aid society for hobos. Howe was born to a wealthy St. Louis family but chose instead to live his life as a hobo. Location unspecified. 1922.Library of Congress
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Two hobos walk along railroad tracks after being put off of a train. Location unspecified. Circa 1900.Wikimedia Commons
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An artist's depiction of a hobo scratching a message as part of the "hobo code," an esoteric language comprised of symbols intended to allow hobos to communicate with one another. Wikimedia Commons
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A hobo prepares to board a freight train to find work elsewhere. Location unspecified. Circa 1955. Three Lions/Getty Images
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A hobo wakes up early in the morning from his bed alongside a corral in Imperial Valley, California. 1939.
Library of Congress
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A hobo sits by the railroad tracks. Yakima Valley, Washington. 1939. Dorothea Lange/Library Of Congress/Getty Images
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On a beautiful estate, 60 lucky hobos live by the benevolence of Mrs. John Howard Child, who lives with a gardener and caretaker, both former hobos. When there are extra chores to be done, Mrs. Child will hire men from the camp to do the work. Santa Barbara, California. 1945. Bettmann/CORBIS/Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
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A migrant worker sleeps in a field on bed of straw, hat over his face, barefoot. United Kingdom. Date unspecified.Time Life Pictures/Pix Inc./The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
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A "gentleman of the road" poses for a photo. United Kingdom. Circa 1890.Past Pix/SSPL/Getty Images
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Three hobos sit under a covered structure known as a hobo "jungle" in Chicago, Illinois. 1929.
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A hobo cooks over a campfire, using a tin can on a stick. Location unspecified. 1935
Alan Fisher/Library of Congress
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A hobo tips his hat as he accepts a sandwich from a hand reaching out of a doorway. Location unspecified. 1935
Alan Fisher/Library of Congress
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An elderly hobo walks along train tracks with a pack of belongings strapped to his back. Location unspecified. 1938.Carl Mydans/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
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The tiny home of a hobo named William McDavid. The roof is held down by stones and license plates block a hole in the wall. Palm Springs, California. 1962.Nat Farbman/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
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William McDavid uses a wheelbarrow. Palm Springs, California. 1962. Nat Farbman/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
On The Road: 24 Vintage Photos Of Hobo Life In America
Often depicted sleeping in a train car or carrying a tiny bindle over their shoulder as they meander across the countryside, the American hobo often gets unfairly branded as lazy or unsavory, but a closer look reveals hard-working men and women just looking for a fair day’s work.
Not to be confused with “bum” or “tramp,” “hobo” is a term that came about around the conclusion of the American Civil War, and was used to describe the countless, now homeless, veterans traveling from coast to coast in search of work. Seeking new sources of income and a possible place to settle, hobos were nothing more than migrant workers in search of their next honest dollar.
Most hobos took to the railroads as an easy and efficient method of traversing the American countryside, hopping onto freight trains until reaching their ever-changing destinations and sometimes even finding paid work on the very rails they relied on for transportation and housing.
Although life on a moving train may sound like an adventure to some, the life of the hobo was anything but, as they faced harsh elements, angry rail workers, police, and everyday citizens determined to make life harder for an already stigmatized and underserved group of people.
With the onset of the Great Depression, entire families would embark on this rugged lifestyle, packing what belongings they still owned into, usually, a covered wagon, and hitting the road, children in tow.
At this time, an entire language, known as “the hobo code” was created to help these migrant workers communicate with one another, aiding their fellow travellers in finding a safe space to rest for the night, or a home that might offer a warm meal, while simultaneously warning others of a mean dog or an even meaner judge that lives on the property they’re about to trespass upon, saving them from a possible night in jail.
Today, nearly a century after the start of the Great Depression, hobo culture lives on — although the difficulty of finding work is no longer what it once was. Instead, contemporary hobo culture, from the 1950s to the present, is more accurately classified as a counterculture movement, attractive to those rejecting conventional norms in favor of a more untethered life.
Above, see historic images of hobo life in decades past.
For a closer look at how hobos communicated, check out the hobo code created by the migrant workers of the late 19th century. Then, see these heartbreaking photos taken at the height of the dust bowl.