Photos Reveal History of the American ‘Hobo’ Who Lived and Worked by a Strict Moral Code

A man with a beard and a wide-brimmed hat sits casually on a wooden fence in a rural setting. He rests his arms on his lap, and the fence has text partially visible. The background features trees, grass, and a hazy sky.
An American hobo sits on a fence in Napa, California, circa 1920.

These fascinating historical photos reveal the relatively unknown history of the migrant worker or “hobos” in early twentieth-century America.

The American hobo is a unique figure in the country’s history, characterized by their transient lifestyle and association with the railroads that began in the post-Civil War era when many veterans were displaced and unemployed.

A bearded elderly man sits on the sidewalk by a fence with a sign reading "BEGGAR'S DOG HOBOKEN." Next to him is a dog wearing a jacket, panting with its tongue out. Various items, including an umbrella, are placed nearby.
Hoboken, New Jersey, circa 1910.
An elderly man in a flat cap and suit sits outdoors, stirring a pot over a smoky fire. He is surrounded by trees and foliage, with sunlight filtering through. A corrugated metal sheet leans against a tree in the background.
Making turtle soup, Minneapolis, Minnesota, circa 1939.
A barber is giving a shave to a customer who is reclining in a vintage barber chair in an early 20th-century barbershop. The barber is focused on the task while another person is seen in the background, seated and possibly reading a newspaper.
A barber working at the Hotel de Gink, a hotel for hobos and itinerant workers located in New York, circa 1915.

Many of these men traveled the country looking for any short-term manual work they could find, often finding paid jobs on the very railroads they relied upon for transportation.

As such, the hobo way of life started and these men took pride in their untethered yet noble lifestyle. In 1889, the nationwide hobo body was founded in Missouri establishing a strict ethical code.

The sixteen rules included tenets like: “Decide your own life, don’t let another person run or rule you”; “When in town, always respect the local law and officials”; “Always try to find work, even if temporary”; and “Do not allow yourself to become a stupid drunk”.

Black and white photo of two men walking side by side on a train track, with rocky terrain in the background. One man carries a bag over his shoulder with a stick, while the other looks down, walking with his hands in his pockets. Both wear hats and casual clothing.
Two hobos walk along railway tracks. One carries a brindle, date unknown.
An elderly man with a beard and glasses stands outside a building holding a newspaper titled "HORO News." He is wearing a hat, jacket, and tie. A doorway with steps and columns is visible in the background.
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.
A young boy with short blond hair stands in front of a wooded area. He is wearing a light-colored shirt and overalls, with a serious expression on his face. The background consists of blurred trees and foliage.
A migratory boy in a squatter camp in 1939 who had come to Yakima Valley, Washington for the third year running to pick hops. His mother said ‘You’d be surprised what that boy can pick’. Photo taken by Dorothea Lange.
Black and white image of a man wearing a long coat and hat, standing on a dirt road, carrying a large sack over his shoulder. Utility poles and a railroad crossing sign are visible in the background, with fields and hills in the distance.
This man was said to have been a hobo for over 25 years working on mines, lumber camps, and farms, December 1938, location unknown.
A man squats near a small campfire on a rocky patch of ground. He wears a cap, a dark coat, and pants, smiling broadly while stirring a pot over the fire with a stick. The surroundings are rustic with sparse vegetation and a slope in the background.
Boxer Lou Ambers cooks over a campfire, using a tin can on a stick. Ambers was a world lightweight boxing champion but before that, he traveled across America to compete in ‘bootleg bouts’ so he could earn some money for his widowed Mother, circa 1929.

The National Hobo Convention continues in Britt, Iowa every year — a festival that began in 1900. There used to be a nationwide chain of inns called “Hotel de Gink” which was established for hobos. Though it was called a hotel, it operated more like a homeless shelter.

During that early period of the 1900s, an entire language known as “the hobo code” was created to help the migrant workers communicate with one another. The visual signs that hobos used were often in charcoal and coal. The code would aid fellow travelers in finding a safe space to rest for the night, a home that might offer a warm meal, or warning of a mean dog.

A black and white photo of four people sitting by the side of a train car on a dirt ground. Two adults and two children are seen, with the adults appearing weary. One child sits on an adult's lap, while the other child sits alone, resting their head on their hand. Bags and belongings are nearby.
Family who traveled by freight train, Yakima Valley, Washington, August, 1939. Photo taken by Dorothea Lange.
A person in worn clothing sits on hay in a shaded area beside a wooden fence, engaged in an activity with their hands. Sunlight casts shadows across the ground, and a few scattered items are visible around them.
A hobo wakes up early in the morning from his bed alongside a corral in Imperial Valley, California, 1939.
Two men are washing cups at the Hotel De Gink. One man, wearing a bowler hat and jacket, is drying a cup with a cloth. The other man, in a cap and shirt, is scrubbing cups in a washbasin on a wooden bench. Various cups and cleaning supplies are scattered around.
Men wash dishes at the Hotel de Gink, a hotel for hobos and itinerant workers located in New York. 1915.
A man in a button-down shirt, rolled-up jeans, suspenders, and a hat sits on the ground against a wall. He looks off to the side with his hands resting on his knees. There is a bag partially visible next to him.
A hobo who had arrived for the Klamath Basin potato harvest, Tukelake, California, August 1939.

The number of hobos increased greatly during the Great Depression era of the 1930s. With no work and no prospects at home, many men — and even whole families — decided to travel for free by freight train and try their luck elsewhere. This era is when Dorothea Lange captured migrant families in the Dust Bowl area of Oklahoma and when she shot the famous Migrant Mother photo in California.

Future world lightweight boxing champion, Lou Ambers was forced to take to the rails and work following this economic downturn. While others like wealthy heir James Eads Howe — dubbed “The Millionaire Hobo” — voluntarily chose to live as one. He financed the International Brotherhood Welfare Association, an aid society for hobos.

A black and white photo of a family at a makeshift campsite. A woman sits inside a tent holding a baby, with two children standing next to her. A boy leans on a box outside the tent. Trees are visible in the background. Suitcases and belongings are scattered.
Florence Owens Thompson, also known as “Migrant Mother” who was the sitter in the iconic Great Depression photograph, sits in a makeshift tent at a pea pickers camp in Nipomo, California, 1936. Photo taken by Dorothea Lange.
A group of men in early 20th-century attire sit and stand inside a large room, peeling potatoes and preparing Mulligan stew. The setting is “Hotel de Gink,” and there is a flag with a star visible in the background. The mood appears communal and industrious.
Men prepare Mulligan Stew, a famous Hobo dish, at the Hotel de Gink, a hotel for hobos and itinerant workers located in New York, circa 1915.
A group of seven men, dressed in early 20th-century attire, stand in a dimly lit room. They are surrounded by stacks of bread and cans, perhaps representing a food distribution or gathering. The background features patterned wallpaper and a wall sconce.
A group of men in suits gather around a table full of food at a hobo convention in Cincinnati, Ohio, 1912.

The modern interpretation of the word hobo has changed greatly with it now more likely to be used as an insult alongside “tramp” or “bum”. But hobos differentiated themselves from “tramps” or “bums” by the set of standards they aspired to live by.