Tramps and hobos are commonly lumped together, but see themselves as sharply differentiated. A hobo or bo is simply a migratory laborer; he may take some longish holidays, but sooner or later he returns to work. A tramp never works if it can be avoided; he simply travels. Apart from either is the bum, who neither works nor travels, save when propelled to motion by the police.
It is unclear exactly when hobos first appeared on the American railroading scene. With the end of the American Civil War in the 1860s, many discharged veterans returning home began hopping freight trains. Others looking for work on the American frontier followed the railways west aboard freight trains in the late 19th century.
In 1906, Professor Layal Shafee, after an exhaustive study, put the number of tramps in America at about 500,000 (about 0.6% of the U.S. population). His article "What Tramps Cost Nation" was published by The New York Telegraph in 1911, when he estimated the number had surged to 700,000.
The number of hobos increased greatly during the Great Depression era of the 1930s. With no work and no prospects at home, many decided to travel for free by freight train and try their luck elsewhere.
Life as a hobo was dangerous. In addition to the problems of being itinerant, poor, and far from home and support, plus the hostility of many train crews, they faced the railroads' security staff, nicknamed bulls, who had a reputation of violence against trespassers. Moreover, riding on a freight train is dangerous in itself. British poet W.H. Davies, author of The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp, lost a foot when he fell under the wheels when trying to jump aboard a train. It was easy to be trapped between cars, and one could freeze to death in bad weather. When freezer cars were loaded at an ice factory, any hobo inside was likely to be killed.
According to Ted Conover in Rolling Nowhere (1984), as many as 20,000 people were living a hobo life in North America. Modern freight trains are much faster and thus harder to ride than in the 1930s, but they can still be boarded in railyards.
There are numerous hobo conventions throughout the country and the year, but the smaller ones tend to come and go.
The ephemeral ways of hobo conventions are mostly dependent on the resources of their hosts. Some conventions are part of railroad conventions or "railroad days". Others are quasi-private affairs, hosted by long-time hobos. Still others are ad hoc—that is they are held surreptitiously on private land.
Some of these conventions are held in abandoned quarries, along major rivers. Most non-mainstream conventions are held at current or historical railroad stops. The most notable is the National Hobo Convention held in Britt, Iowa.
National Hobo Convention
In 1900, the town fathers of Britt, Iowa, invited Tourist Union #63 to bring their annual convention to town. A hiatus of thirty-three years—from 1901 to 1933—preceded continuation from 1934 since. The National Hobo Convention has been held on the second weekend in August every year since.
Hobo Museum The Britt Hobo Museum exhibits a smattering of hobo history and lore. Initially just a "Hobo Convention" museum, in the late 1990s it evolved into a true Hobo History museum.
Public library A shelf in the Britt Public library offers a hodgepodge of hobo literature and history. This library complements others around the country, and private collections.
Portraits of kings and queens LeAnn Castillo, a local artist and the hobo painter, exhibits her portrait collection of hobo kings and queens since 1900. All of her paintings are taken from photos—even current kings and queens. Most hobos can't sit still long enough to have a portrait painted. None has ever been painted live.
Formal entertainment begins before dusk, and is provided by a mix of active hobos, extended hobo families and non-hobo wannabees.
Informal Late after dark, the crowd leaves and the campfire becomes more informal and genuine. Satellite groups spring up. Stories are told—small and tall, poetry is recited, and cants are sung to the muted vibrations of banjos, guitars and harmonicas.
Lighting of the fire Activities officially begin the Thursday of the convention weekend with a lighting of the campfire and exercise of some hobo cultural traditions (Honoring the Four Winds) before the opening entertainment.
Cemetery visit Friday morning, many visit the hobo-corner of the cemetery to pay tribute to those who have "Caught the Westbound" with a hobo memorial service preceded by a local contingent of ex-military colorguard. Names of deceased hobos are recited (Roll Call).
Poetry reading Friday evening around five o'clock, the poetry reading attracts participants and a small crowd of onlookers.
Elections of Hobo King and Queen Hobo-king candidates are screened the days before the annual King and Queen election and coronation, for their knowledge and history of riding trains, and how well they would represent the hobo community. A quasi-qualified candidate is occasionally allowed to run. Any woman who is part of the hobo community may run for hobo queen.
Hobo Days parade The Saturday-morning Hobo Days parade in the town pavilion displays hobo personnel and advertises those running for hobo king and queen one last chance to campaign before the election in the early afternoon. Following the parade, mulligan stew is served to hundreds of people in the city park, cooked by local Boy Scouts. In early afternoon, the hobo King and Queen are then elected by the volume of crowd applause, hobos, local citizens and town visitors alike.
Non-Hobo entertainment A carnival, flea market and an annual auto show are also part of the festivities. The din of stock-car races on the south end of Britt fills the evening air.
To cope with the uncertainties of hobo life, hobos developed a system of symbols, or a visual code. Hobos would write this code with chalk or coal to provide directions, information, and warnings to others in "the brotherhood". A symbol would indicate "turn right here", "beware of hostile railroad police", "dangerous dog", "food available here", and so on. Some commonly-used signs:
A cross signifies "angel food", that is, food served to the hobos after a sermon.
A triangle with hands signifies that the homeowner has a gun.
An ethical code was created by Tourist Union #63 during its 1889 National Hobo Convention in St. Louis Missouri. This code was voted upon as a concrete set of laws to govern the Nation-wide Hobo Body; it reads this way:
Decide your own life, don't let another person run or rule you.
When in town, always respect the local law and officials, and try to be a gentleman at all times.
Don't take advantage of someone who is in a vulnerable situation, locals or other hobos.
Always try to find work, even if temporary, and always seek out jobs nobody wants. By doing so you not only help a business along, but ensure employment should you return to that town again.
When no employment is available, make your own work by using your added talents at crafts.
Do not allow yourself to become a stupid drunk and set a bad example for locals' treatment of other hobos.
When jungling in town, respect handouts, do not wear them out, another hobo will be coming along who will need them as badly, if not worse than you.
Always respect nature, do not leave garbage where you are jungling.
If in a community jungle, always pitch in and help.
Try to stay clean, and boil up wherever possible.
When traveling, ride your train respectfully, take no personal chances, cause no problems with the operating crew or host railroad, act like an extra crew member.
Do not cause problems in a train yard, another hobo will be coming along who will need passage through that yard.
Do not allow other hobos to molest children, expose all molesters to authorities, they are the worst garbage to infest any society.
Help all runaway children, and try to induce them to return home.
Help your fellow hobos whenever and wherever needed, you may need their help someday.
If present at a hobo court and you have testimony, give it. Whether for or against the accused, your voice counts!
Many cartoons depict hobos as main or secondary characters, hobo related activities such as traveling by train, with a bindle, or in company of hobos. For example, 8 Ball Bunny (1950) with Bugs Bunny, Merrie MelodiesHobo Gadget Band (1939), Mouse Wreckers (1948) and MGM's Henpecked Hoboes (1948).
Ironweed (1987), directed by Héctor Babenco and based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by William Kennedy, who also wrote the screenplay. Stars Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep, with Carroll Baker, Michael O'Keefe, Diane Venora, Fred Gwynne, Nathan Lane, and Tom Waits in supporting roles.
Hobo (1992), a documentary by John T. Davis, following the life of a hobo on his travels through the United States.
"The Human Experience", (2008), a documentary by Charles Kinnane. The first experience follows Jeffrey and his brother Clifford to the streets of New York City where the boys live with the homeless for a week in one of the coldest winters on record. The boys look for hope and camaraderie among their homeless companions, learning how to survive on the streets.
Brady, Jonann (2005). "Hobos Elect New King and Queen". ABC Good Morning America, includes Todd "Ad Man" Waters' last ride as reigning Hobo King plus hobo slide show with Adman’s photo’s taken on the road.