Hobo Lingo

In the eighth episode of Mad Men entitled “The Hobo Code,” we are introduced to different pieces of Don’s (Jon Hamm) tormenting past. Throughout the episode, one of Don’s childhood memories revolves around a hobo (Paul Schulze) working at his house for a day. In one of the scenes, the hobo is talking to Don (Dick) at night showing him different signs that make up the so called “hobo code.” This hobo code, however, is not something that was just created by the writers of the show to fit in the storyline of the episode.

During times of economic hardships and distress, people have been known to leave their life behind and move on to find a new life somewhere else. To survive on a daily basis, hobos would (and still) need to travel from house to house looking for work in order to get paid (either in monetary form, a meal, etc.). Despite the work that hobos performed, there were always times when they were not exactly promised what they were originally offered. Not knowing the landscape of the region you are in could hinder oneself from making the right decisions at certain times. Also, going from house to house can waste a lot of time due to the unknown of whether or not going to each house is beneficial or not.

In order to stray away from inconsiderate households and less than desirable territories, a hobo sign language, now commonly referred to as the hobo code, was created. The signs were not hand signs, rather they were carvings and drawings imprinted on physical features near houses and landscapes to communicate to other travelers and hobos on what lies ahead. The messages that hobos were able to leave for one another ranged from simple descriptions of the land all the way to character traits of the members of a household. Whether a sign revealed that food could be offered for work or people were available to help you if you were sick, hobos had a system that, if used correctly, could cause problems to be avoided and fortune to be found.

When the hobo in Mad Men shows Don (Dick) some of the signs, he shows him the marks for good food, watch out for the nasty dog, a dishonest man lives here, and tell a sad story. When the hobo leaves, he ends up carving the mark “a dishonest man lives here” on the gate to their front house. The fact that Don still remembers this moment as an adult reveals inherent feelings of distrust that Don (and hobos alike) felt from his father.

1 comment:

  1. "The Hobo Code" was actually one of my favorite episodes in the first season and I was always intrigued by the code that the hobo left on the gate to Don's house, so it's interesting to see that you chose to write about this "hobo lingo." You do a great job of explaining what the purpose of these codes are and the picture you attached of the different codes that the hobos used is a great supplement. It's also nice that you start off with the connection to Mad Men and end your post with the impact this code has had on young Don in the show. The only thing that I have a question about is the prominence of these codes during the times of economic hardships and distress that you talked about. Where do these codes originate from, and were they really used often by the hobos?