amy azzaritopast & present

past & present: tramp art + restoration project

by Amy Azzarito

Confession. I didn’t learn about tramp art when I got my Master’s degree in Dec. Arts History.  (Like most art history degrees, all your time is pretty much devoted to memorizing the well-known folks.) Growing up, when there was a lack of ideas for Halloween costumes, my mom seemed to enjoy dressing us up as hoboes. Honestly. I don’t even think I knew what a hobo was or why a little girl would want to dress like one (She didn’t.) so when Grace asked me to look into tramp art. I had visions of hoboes dancing in my head. Turns out – the whole tramp art thing is a bit of a misnomer. And the skill involved in this intricate carving pretty much took my breath away. In a lot of ways, tramp art is the male version of quilting. An under-appreciated (until recently) craft. Practiced in one’s spare time. To make stuff that you could use for your own house or give as gifts. Pretty awesome. –amy a.

[image above clockwise from left: Kissing Doves Heart Encrusted Wall Pocket $4,500, 1900 Multi Level Box $1,195, Tramp Art Wall/Medicine Cabinet1890s Tramp Art Stand on turned legs $2,800, Alsatian Tramp Art Box $2,970, Tramp Art Portrait Frame $675]

tramp art puzzle frame $750
And here we have the million dollar question. Were these artists actually tramps? Were they roaming around the country making art in return for room and board? The answer seems to be – not so much. The term seems to have been codified in the 1960s when historians began to get interested in this folk art. And while tramps (and hoboes!) certainly did whittle with a penknife, it was probably not the elaborate carvings that we know as Tramp Art.

a 1930s English tramp art box from 1st dibs, $675
So Who Were These Tramps Artists?
The average tramp artist was a man. (Not that women didn’t decorate those cigar boxes, but they preferred to glue shells or otherwise decorate the box rather than whittling) Most of the tramp artists belonged to the working class. He made utilitarian objects for his own use. The majority of tramp art in America was made from the 1870 – 1930.

If you stumble upon tramp art at your local flea, don’t be deterred by a piece with imperfections! Artist Amy Rice gave a this piece of tramp art some tender loving care using cardboard, foam core, glue and an exacto knife!

CLICK HERE for more Tramp Art!

Tramp Art Doll House $7,800
European Origins of Tramp Art
Wood carving has been popular all over the world – from our earliest beginnings, man has used sharp objects such as shells or rocks to make gouges into wood. Although it is difficult to pin down the exact location where tramp art was born, most historians identify Germany and northern Europe as the home of the elaborate notched and layered carvings that we now identify as tramp art. This carving technique was brought to American with German immigrants or Scandinavian immigrants who then spread their carving skills around the country.

tramp art = cigar boxes
You really can’t address the subject of tramp art with out mentioning cigar boxes. In the 1860s, cigars were the most popular form of tobacco. Legally, cigars had to be sold in boxes and once the boxes were sold, they couldn’t be reused. This wasn’t hastily thrown-together packaging. Manufacturers thought that the essence of the wood would blend with the cigars to enhance their flavor. As the popularity of cigar smoking increased, so did the number of empty boxes and for a proficient carver, the plentiful supply of quality wood just called for creative reuse.  The decline of cigar smoking (and the rise of cigarettes) was one of the factors that contributed to the demise of the art form. In addition, cigar manufacturers replaced the wooden cigar boxes with cardboard ones.

Books to Read
Tramp Art: A Folk Art Phenomenon – a little book packed full with photos of tramp art examples that guides you through the history of the subject.

Hobo & Tramp Art Carving – if you have any interest in picking up a penknife, then this is the book for you.

Tramp Art Restoration Project by Amy Rice

[From Amy Rice: As a collector and re-user of vintage and antique picture frames I occasionally come across “tramp art” frames. They have always been priced out of my budget so when I found one under $20, I bought it in spite of its terrible condition. Now, I like to paint old frames fun colors, but I try to have restraint when it comes to real antiques preferring to find a piece of art that will lend itself to the condition of the frame the way it is. I would generally NEVER paint an antique tramp art frame BUT this one was really messed up.]

[From Amy Rice: I used card board, foam core, glue and an exacto knife to reproduce the missing wooden chips and then I painted the whole piece with house paint. In hindsight, foam core would have been a better choice to replicate the edge carvings.]

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  • Sigh. All of these tramp art pieces make me swoon. And I really appreciated the helpful history lesson on them!

    What about tramp art that’s made from old matches? That’s another sub-genre of this art form that fascinates me. You often hear these pieces described as “prison art,” the idea being that matchsticks were one of the few materials available for creative convicts. Is this true? Or is “prison art” also a misnomer?

    • oooh! interesting kim! i’ll have to look into the matchstick art. i think that anything that involves creative reuse is a lot of fun – and speaks a lot to the time now. thanks! amya

  • Tramp art is usually thought of as a subset of what art historians call outsider art (I guess you could also call it folk art), and yes, you’re right. It’s not usually part of a MA in art history, although people have written theses and dissertations in specialized areas like this. It would depend on what kind of art history department you’re in as to whether it would be open as a research topic.
    These days, it would fall into the even broader category of visual culture. The whole high-low dichotomy is being dealt with in the discipline of art history (since Pop art in the 1950s kinda vaporized it), but it is pretty specialized. In other countries folk art is sometimes also dealt with in anthropology, or cultural studies, but art history itself is starting to incorporate all sorts of art and artists not usually included in the “canon.” Museum exhibitions and auction houses are places where scholarship on these kinds of art takes place, too.

  • I love the crafty paint and repair job presented in this post. The tramp style frame and the art were meant to married like that :)

  • thank you for posting this! i had no idea that i owned a piece of this. my great-uncle made frames in this style on our family farm. when “cleaning up” i found a gem and it now hangs in our tiny urban apartment. reminds me of the farm!

  • it is interesting to read but i cannot even look at the objects, i am finding them so ugly!

  • I can’t believe you’re featuring Tramp Art. That is the most fantastic thing in the world. NOBODY knows about/features Tramp Art. Good job Design*Sponge!

    And Kim … the only prison art I know about involves a needle, a thread, some ink and a guy named Sparkles. Or something like that. Couldda been Bruiser. You get the idea.

  • I second The Art of Doing Stuff. This is fantastic! I absolutely love that you have brought this artform out of the shadows. For some it’s an acquired taste, but they’ll never get it unless they see it. Thanks for sharing!

    If you want to do another one consider pyro art – http://bit.ly/comYsQ – it’s super sweet, affordable for all and easily found.

  • I was so surprised to see this post. I’ve seen “tramp art” on and off over the years, but never knew there was enough of it around to actually form a tradition. I especially loved the comparison to women quilting. Thanks for all the great info!

  • Such meticulous work! How does anyone ever have the patience to see it through?

    Anyway, as a bit of a retired artist, I’d like to share this article with you (http://www.pressdisplay.com/pressdisplay/showlink.aspx?bookmarkid=5ZNOPXBQRF66&preview=article&linkid=4e9ffa03-a6f7-432e-a7c6-285a3dceed03&pdaffid=ZVFwBG5jk4Kvl9OaBJc5%2bg%3d%3d). It’s a rarity that really speaks true to the modern artistic community.

    So if you have a bit of time, this one’s not a bad read.

  • Hi Amy, I liked the blurb on tramp art although some of your points are open for debate. That is the beauty of tramp art a humble art form, made by humble artists for all of us to enjoy (except for a few!) has open questions & is still in a state of discovery. I am happy to inform you of a major museum show that will travel the country for 2 years starting at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, WI in June 2012. We are in discussions with other major museums about the show & will announce the rest of the venue shortly. The exhibit will feature 200 historical artifacts, show a feature length documentary titled Westbound, & will have a catalog. Tramp art is at an exciting point in its history & articles like yours reaching out to people who have not heard about it before is important. Especially when discussing our creative past as a country & culture.

    • Hi Clifford! Thanks for your comment. I certainly defer to you in all things tramp art! (Your site and your page on 1st dibs were tremendous resources!) This was intended to just be a little intro into the subject. (I primarily used the Helaine Fendelman book as a resource – linked above.) I will certainly look out for the exhibition – and hopefully there will a companion book! :)

  • As antiques dealer who handles tramp art in my shop, I agree with tramp art dealer/ expert Cliff Wallach. His superb books on tramp art must be consulted as one develops a collection or buys for a client . I just sold a huge “Crown of Thorns” frame 4′ x 5′ that you call a puzzle frame, its construction technique is remarkable.) “Tramp art” is one of those romantic myths about the origins of American folk art that has been dispelled now by true scholarship like Cliff’s. Men interested in woodcarving created functional useful objects from wood scraps; some are sculptural art masterworks, not just cute collectibles. The technique was practiced worldwide; much came from eastern Europe. Tiny sharp points and a layered format characterize the work.

    I would like to see design sponge credit the people who are sources of the antiques and information you share here, just like you do the contemporary artisans. Cliff and Helaine have taught us about about and sold great stuff and it’s important to acknowledge them so collectors and decorators can learn from their scholarship and experience.

    Laura Fisher

  • Not an art expert, but am plenty familiar with tramp art. I’ve always understood the “tramp” name to refer not to the people who created these marvelous things, but to the inexpensive materials used.

    Around the turn of the 20th century, a lot of people had far more time than money; they had to make do with what they could get their hands on to indulge their creativity. Thus, the painstaking work and the many tiny wood scraps (and matchsticks!).

    Where there’s a will, there’s a way…

  • the restoration of antiques is quite a difficult task. it takes lots of effort to restore the antiques, especially the art antiques.

  • Hi. I just found your site and added it to my favorites. I started making tramp art pieces a year or so ago and am always looking for more information and inspiration. Thanks for the post.

  • Do you know where you can have Tramp Art Restored? My Grandfather had made a church and it is in need of some TLC. Parts of it are warped and my parents cats had climbed on it and scratched it. I would love to have it fixed up by not sure where to go. Thanks.

  • Just to set the record straight, I did much of the research and writing, and took probably the majority of pictures, for Clifford Wallach’s first book. My only credit is on the dust jacket, and I don’t believe I received any credit for the photographs. We were partners on this project for a few years. I was set up with a booth full of tramp art at the Brimfield markets when Cliff first started buying. Of course, I have virtually disappeared from the scene, while he has built an impressive tramp art business and found some extraordinary examples. A lot come directly from eBay, so I would advise any serious collector to shop for yourself there.

  • Interesting site – and I was very interested in the various comments. The reason I have for visiting this site (and gain knowledge of who a tramp artist is, or was) is that I have a box with the name of “Valdo – The Original Tramp Artist” stencelled on it. Anyoe any idea as to who Valdo was?

  • Karen (8/6/2011) -,did you ever find anyone doing tramp art restoration? I am also looking. I have a large multi- level piece done by a family member that needs help.