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Ask About Antiques: Tramp Art

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Tramp Art

The best "tramp art" exhibits fine craftsmanship and creative innovation, soundly rejecting the notion that only professional artists can create lasting works of art. It is known by many names including hobo art, tramp work, whittling, edge carving, knifework, and knick carving. The adoption of the word "tramp" came about around the turn of the 20th century by the fact that some of the earlier artists who migrated from area to area carving and producing their art lived like "tramps" and hobos compared to the norms of the day. Subsequently, tramp art was much more an art form of everyday life for those so inclined, a hobby to pass the time much like needlepoint.
Tramp art can take all different forms and incorporate many different materials including what many would consider throw-away materials, and it can often reflect the whimsical and creative personalities of its creator. Tramp artisans were mostly everyday people who wanted to decorate their homes with art, and used common objects accessible to them in creating these new art forms. For example, folk artisans would take a common cedar wood cigar box and elaborately decorate it with wood mosaics, buttons, mirrors, beads, and other objects to create a dresser box suitable to hold their valuables. The cedar wood cigar box was a readily available yet good quality raw material with which to work; hundreds of thousands of cigar boxes were made for smokers in the early 20th century. The style spread through word of mouth and across families, and over time, these tramp artworks became ever more elaborate and complex in their design and execution.
Much tramp art uses thin pieces of wood shaped, notched, glued, and assembled entirely by hand. Since the wood from cigar boxes was thin, it was easy to carve and handle with simple implements but it needed to be applied in layers to create more rigid and substantial forms such as furniture although other accessible objects like packing crates were also used. While few generalities are possible, tramp art is often reminiscent of Islamic and Eastern European art and carvings favoring geometric patterns complemented with ornamental figures, pull chains, and common everyday objects put to a new use in the service of art. The ease with which thin cigar box cedar could be cut contributed to the proliferation of complex geometric patterns combining many different shapes. It is common to find tramp art wood pieces painted, often with a great deal of style and talent, and wood constructions were decorated with everything from broken pieces of china and mirrors to old photographs and textiles. Colorful lithographed cigar box labels were also a popular construction material, thus making use of the cigar box wood as well as the labels with whose depicting women particularly popular.
Tramp art forms were not made for display but rather for utilitarian uses, so some of the more common objects are dresser boxes, comb cases, picture frames, jewelry boxes, sewing kits, doll furniture, and wall pockets. Rare forms are of more complex and elaborate construction and usually reflect a great deal more skill in the maker, so these were usually larger and more substantial pieces such as plant stands, medicine cabinets, chairs, religious figures and shrines, birdhouses, clock cases, and occasionally models of public architecture such as courthouse buildings and even the Brooklyn Bridge. There has been speculation that many of the basic forms of tramp art were disseminated in the form of plans that could be followed but still customized to some degree. While this may have been true, tramp art effectively ceased as a prolific art movement with the advent of mass merchandisers such as Sears Roebuck who through their catalogue sales made cost effective furniture and objects available to Americans nationwide. The industrial tools of mass production enabled most household objects to be made with a substantive amount of style but at an affordable cost, and the trains made shipment nationwide feasible for the first time. During the same time period, cigar makers began to shift their production techniques to use less expensive cardboard versus the thinly cut cedar of tramp art. This made fewer raw materials available to the makers of tramp art during a period when cigar smoking was on the decline anyway. By the 1930s, very little new tramp art was being produced. Many different factors can influence the prices paid for tramp art today, including such things as craftsmanship, patina, age, original condition, but most of all whimsical and fun pieces bring the strongest prices in the market. While a substantive amount of tramp art is signed and dated, little is known about the majority of the signed artists much less the myriad tramp art, which is unmarked.

Budd A. Moore, Ed.D., is a specialist in the valuation of antique and collectable objects of the last 150 years as a collector of antique American Art Pottery and a dealer for over 20 years. If you have a question about antiques, e-mail him at

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