The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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June 14, 2012

Slate: The universal signal for hitchhiking

A West Virginia hitchhiker working on a book tentatively titled "The Kindness of America" was apparently shot by a random stranger Saturday night. The article in the New York Daily News featured a picture of an outstretched thumb. When did sticking your thumb out become the universal gesture for hitchhiking?

The 1920s. The first descriptions of hitchhiking are nearly as old as the first mass-produced automobiles, but it wasn't long before hitchhiking developed an inextricable association with the opposable digit. Less than a decade after the introduction of the Ford Model T, poet Vachel Lindsay gave thanks to drivers who would pick him up along the road when he was tired, writing in 1916, "He it is that wants the other side of the machine weighed down. He it is that will offer me a ride and spin me along from five to twenty-five miles before supper." Around the 1920s, those isolated travelers developed into a national phenomenon, and in 1923, The Nation described a new type of traveler known as "hitch-hikers." (The word appeared in quotation marks, suggesting that it was still unfamiliar to readers.) While the Nation column makes no mention of thumbs, soon after, a 1925 article in American Magazine described how "[t]he hitch hiker stands at the edge of the road and points with his thumb in the direction he wishes to go." By 1927 Printers' Ink monthly was calling these hitchhikers "thumb-pointers," the Maryland paper the Daily Mail was calling them "thumb-jerkers," and The New York Times described travelers who (still in quotation marks) " 'thumb' their way from coast to coast." In 1927 two Boston University students were able to " 'Thumb' Their Way to Chicago and Back," but in one episode of the trip, they were "'Out-Thumbed' by Girls" who were able to cajole a driver out of "free meals as well as transportation."

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