Tramp Art – A Found Art Movement of the People

Tramp Art

Tramp art is a woodworking style in which small pieces of wood, primarily from discarded cigar boxes and shipping crates, are whittled, notched, and assembled into layers with geometric patterns.

It was popular between 1870 and the 1940s.

It was an art form produced mainly by untrained artisans made up of everyday men and women.

Because it was not a recognized art movement until after its decline, the study and understanding of Tramp Art as its own genre of art has only recently been acknowledged.

It wasn’t until the 1960’s and 70’s that articles began to appear referring to the body of work as an art form.

It was first mentioned in an article published in the Pennsylvania Folk Life Magazine written by Francis Lichten in 1959.

She termed the material “Tramp Work.”

The term “Tramp Art” would suggest that the main body of artisans producing this work were itinerate persons such as Hoboes also known as “Tramps”.

While there were tramps or hoboes who made the art form it was not in the numbers that the name suggests.

Tramp art was a democratic art form made around the world wherever the raw materials used in its construction were found.

In the United States there were over 50 different ethnic groups documented making it.

It was easy to make and appealed to anyone who had a desire to take a pocketknife to wood.

Hundreds of men, some women, and even children made historical tramp art.

Tramp art was mostly made in a home-based setting by men who were factory workers, farmers, and labored in just about every conceivable occupation.

Tramp art is an important art movement as it is a testament to the ability of the common man untrained in the arts to produce objects of immense artistic integrity.

The name tramp art was a contemporary invention and had nothing to do with the art form as a whole.

The artisans that produced “Tramp Art” shared a vision to create art out of society’s discards long before it was fashionable.

These pieces were produced by men (and some women) whose talents were celebrated not in museums or art galleries but in the home.

The number of artifacts that survive today testifies to its enduring appreciation among the people who lived with and used the tramp art objects — created not in the schools or workshops that taught or produced art but in the home.

Men’s Quilting

Due to it being predominately a man’s craft, it was known in its time as “Men’s Quilting” due to the often small, delicate pieces of wood from which objects were constructed.

Tramp artists commonly used cigar boxes, which were constructed of only six small, thin pieces of wood.

To make even the simplest tramp art box or frame one would need multiple cigar boxes and taking them apart was tedious work.

But why would someone want to use such a limited sized material to make art?

One connection is with quilt making, a handcraft that was popular during the time that tramp art flourished.

Both quilt makers and tramp artists, by combining small pieces cut from larger ones, were able to make something useful.

The techniques used by the quilt maker, as she stitched segments together, and the carver, as he notched edges on each layer, were uniquely similar and accomplished in a similar repetitive fashion.

The cigar box, although a hindrance in one area as far as its size and thickness, was probably inspirational in other ways.

Boxes of fine woods lent themselves to inspire creative individuals in an age when most items were made by hand.

People were comfortable working with wood, and most men had a jack knife, a handy tool used for whittling or carving.

Unlike quilt making, tramp art allows the artisan to layer and build up the mass of the object – the scale of the material never prohibiting creativity or functionality.

Artists were able to transcend the cigar box form and create works that were unique and beautiful.

While patterns existed for other crafts such as quilting, hooked rug making, pyrography, fret work and other popular crafts, no published patterns have ever been found for making Tramp Art

The art form seems to have been passed around the world like a Folk Tale, each country and artisan adding their own cultural flare.

With the ease and speed at which the popularity of the art form spread, Tramp Art would seem to have no boundaries – no routines or traditional techniques to follow.

Any stylistic similarities are due to the common element in most pieces: the cigar box.

By recycling the wooden boxes, tramp artists did not leave much waste; all of the wood was used.

Leftover portions cut from larger pieces were incorporated as decorative elements or layered into pedestal bases.

The limits of the raw materials became an asset and inspired creativity.

Pieces were constructed similar to a bricklayer assembling a brick wall with pieces being layered to create a whole.

Design elements were added in a similar process the quilter would use to applique designs onto a quilt.

Designs were geometric, simplistic and inspired by natural elements like the sunflower.

Tramp artists used a technique called chip carving to embellish objects.

The chips would be arranged to create the elaborate geometric designs applied to the object.

Chip carving was not the only technique used to construct tramp art and cigar boxes were not the only material tramp artists used.

Some tramp art objects are decorated with slightly burned match sticks positioned to give the appearance of burnished wooden edges.

No material was off limits in the construction of tramp art; even popsicle sticks were used to create small tables, lamps, and other objects.

         

 

The popularity of Tramp Art reached its zenith during the Great Depression and declined shortly thereafter in the 1940’s.

The Depression era was hard on all aspects of life and especially areas like art and aesthetic decoration where people could little afford to embellish their lives.

For the artisan, tramp art was inexpensive to produce as its materials were often recycled from discarded wood and therefore affordable to make.

The ease of construction and the lack of set guidelines for form and function allowed the everyday person to make functional pieces of art for their homes.

Once the Great Depression was over, consumers turned again towards mass-produced and commercially available wares causing a decline in the demand or need to make tramp art objects.

Auction Results

Sold August 2021: $350.75                                                                                                         Sold September 2018: $225                                                                                                          Sold September 2022: $495