The term "hobo" has an unknown origin, perhaps related to "ho, boy," a workers' call on late 19th century American railroads or the early 19th century English "hawbuck," a country bumpkin. The iconic image of a hobo is that of a downtrodden, often drunk male, carrying a bindle or a sign asking for money.
At the end of the Civil War, soldiers returning home hopped trains. Later, others looking for work on the American frontier followed railroads westward. The Great Depression increased the population of hobos as many traveled by trains to look for work.
Life as a hobo was risky. In addition to the problems of being itinerant, poor, far from home and support, and the hostility of train crews, the railroads employed their own security staff, who were rough with trespassers. A hobo could have easily fallen under the wheels of a train, gotten trapped between cars, or froze to death.
In this lifestyle, information, conveyed in symbols only hobos understood, was the key to survival. From a historian's point of view, the symbols expressed a hobo's daily concerns. Many symbols that expressed danger: dogs, judges, police officers, and unfriendly people. Places good for handouts--money, food, or both--were denoted, as well as strategies to employ. For example, a cross meant religious talk should be used, and a "T" or a series of horizontal lines meant food in exchange for work. Opportunities for medical care were also expressed, as well as clean or dirty water, safe camps, and the best and safest ways to travel. I particularly like the smiling cat symbol for a kindhearted lady!
More Hobo Signs
Nowadays, traveling, homeless people are less likely to call themselves hobos and usually communicate through cell phones and internet access. However, the hobo signs of yesteryear have been reconfigured to express Wi-Fi connections through "warchalking," developed by Matt Jones, a London-based information architect and designer.
The word is formed by analogy to wardriving, the practice of driving around an area in a car to detect open Wi-Fi nodes. That term in turn is based on wardialing, the practice of dialing many phone numbers hoping to find a modem.
Having found a Wi-Fi node, the warchalker draws a special symbol on a nearby object, such as a wall, the pavement, or a lamp post. Those offering Wi-Fi service might also draw such a symbol to advertise the availability of their Wi-Fi location, whether commercial or personal. The marks are designed to be recognized by those in the know. A well-known[attribution needed] photograph of such a warchalk symbol was created by Jones's colleague Ben Hammersley, and has been widely reproduced.
Warchalking never seemed to catch on as an activity, despite its widespread coverage. Instead, the symbols were almost immediately adopted by commercial enterprises interested in or offering Wi-Fi, such as JiWire (a Wi-Fi hotspot directory and how-to site). The symbol is now widely used as a shorthand in logos and advertising.