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Hobo Sign Language Targeted El Paso
Article first published in Vol. 12, 1994.
By David Uhl
there was a town out West called El Paso known for its generosity to beggars. This news reached the vagabonds through a simple system of symbols which could be found on street curbs and buildings nationwide.
A February 8, 1932 El Paso Times article carried the following code used by the hobos of the 1930s to spread world of El Paso's generosity:
- Two hobos, traveling together, have gone the direction of the arrows.
- Hobos not welcome. Will be put to work on rock pile, sawing wood, or hard labor.
- This sign depicts the bars of a jail.
- Means "OUT" or "GET OUT." Poor pickings.
- The town itself is no good, but the churches and missions are kindly disposed.
- This is a good place for hobos to meet other hobos.
- All the ministers, mission heads, and Christian leaders are disposed to welcome transients.
- The pendulum indicates that the people here swing back and forth in their attitude toward hobos, sometimes friendly and other times unkind.
- Represents two rails and a cross tie. Means "Railway Terminal" or "Division Point," a good place to board trains in different directions.
- This sign represents teeth; it means the police or people are hostile to tramps.
- This means "the jail is alive with cooties."
- Keep on moving: the police, the churches, and the people are no good.
- This is a swell place to stop: these people are bighearted.
- Food may be had for the asking.
- The sign for "OK." People are very good, kindly disposed.
- Best results are secured if two hobos travel together, not so good for a lone hobo.
As a result of its generosity, El Paso came to be known as an "easy mark" for beggars. These men could make from $2 to $5 a day or more panhandling when working men took home much less: Olive D. McGuire, secretary of the El Paso Community Chest, warned townspeople to inspect their curbs and be thrilled if hobos had placed an emblem of lattice work there- a symbol meaning "hobos not welcome." McGuire distributed sheets containing the hobo language and asked residents to send panhandlers to organized agencies for help.
The generosity of El Pasoans has continued through the years even though the city is not affluent. Some restaurants in town give their left-over food to shelters or charity organizations, or they simply give it to the homeless who ask, rather than throwing it away.
Although the hobo sign language no longer exists, many homeless still know that El Paso is a generous city, recently having been named one of the top 50 U.S. cities for charitable giving.
- Desert Immigrants: The Mexicans of El Paso, 1880-1920 by Mario T. Garcia. Yale University Press, 1981 Available in these libraries.