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 Cabinet, 1890s 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!
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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.]