Thursday, September 24, 2009

Hobo signs reveal character and more

"Still your children wander homeless; still the hungry cry for bread…." - Albert Bayly

"My house has a hobo sign that says, 'Generous man lives here,'" my soft-spoken friend Michael uttered at church one day. We were discussing demonstrating acts of charity among strangers in our adult Sunday school class.

"Well, they actually haven't painted a sign on my house, but word has spread among the hobo community that I'll give them a hot cup of soup if they’re hungry and a shirt if they need it," Michael continued with a humble twinkle in his eyes. "I don't give them money, though. And no booze. Just the basics."

Hoboes passing through Sioux City, Iowa, have been known to congregate in Cook Park and in a wooded area along railroad tracks parallel to Interstate 29 North, explained Michael, himself a Sioux City resident.

As I listened to him speak about hoboes, I was captivated. I learned that hobo signs are an essential way a dispersed group of people stay connected.

They have no phones, no email, no way to communicate, except for word-of-mouth and cryptic symbols left behind on fences, walls, houses and barns.

Simply put, hobo signs are instructions on where to go for food and shelter, how to stay out of trouble, how to navigate through life.

A piece of string tied to a tree or a fence stands for "asked for and received."

A plastic bag filled with rocks means you will come away with more than you need. The rocks symbolize material goods instead of money. Others leave behind arrows made of sticks, leading to a hot meal or a safe place to stay the night.

A squiggly horizontal line stands for, "Poor man lives here." A top hat next to a large triangle means just the opposite, "A wealthy man lives here."

A vertical line with three perpendicular lines diminishing in size with the smallest at the top symbolizes "officer." A smiley face tells others "Can sleep here."

Five circles mean "good chance to get money." A simple table means sit-down food. A cross? "Talk religion and get food." A "T" stands for "food for work."

Two circles, one on top of the other with three small triangles beside the circles are the sign for "kind woman." My favorite is a horizontal rectangle with a jagged line inside, which means "Bad-tempered owner."

According to hobo historian Fran DeLorenzo, author of The Hobo Minstrel, one or more signs can have the same message, and there can be slightly different meanings for a sign used in different parts of the U.S.

You may have noticed hobo signs and only dismissed them as litter caught up by the wind or child's play.

As I delved into hobo signs, I grew enamored by their simplicity and power and wondered what sign hoboes would place outside my house or yours.

2009 © Copyright Paula Damon. A resident of Southeast South Dakota, Paula Damon is a national award-winning columnist. Her columns have won first-place in National Federation of Press Women, South Dakota Press Women and Iowa Press Women Communications Contests. In the 2009 South Dakota Press Women Communications Contest, Paula's columns took three first-place awards. To contact Paula, email, follow her blog at and find her on Facebook.

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