The world of American folk art is truly vast, but even in such a wide and deep category of collectible, one would likely recognize the presence and popularity of tramp art. Tramp art is a type of wood carving that likely began in the 1850s and continues even today. Renowned scholar and collector Clifford Wallach describes it best: “small pieces of wood, primarily from discard[ed] cigar boxes and shipping crates, are whittled into layers of geometric patterns having the outside edges of each layer notch carved.” Unlike many other art categories, tramp art is delineated not by its artists, date of creation, or regional affiliation but by its materials and design.
The craftsmanship of tramp art boxes, mirrors, crosses, frames, and other decorative objects is truly remarkable, particularly when considering each is made from recycled wood and a pocket knife. Given how time-consuming the process is, and the intricacy of the resulting product, it is curious that for decades scholars and collectors believed these pieces to be made by tramps or itinerants.
This American-made tramp art box with several compartments sold for $129.99USD on eBay in 2021.
In the 1950s, tramp art was first “discovered” and established as an art form by Pennsylvania folklorist Frances Lichten. Though her scholarly contribution was certainly a progressive step towards adding to the larger understanding of folk art, Lichten wrongly asserted based on hearsay that itinerants carved these pieces. It took decades for scholars to realize that though vagabonds were known for whittling found objects, the scale of many tramp art pieces would be very impractical for someone with little resources who was traveling almost constantly. Though we can deduce that tramp art was largely created by landowning men, the bulk of artists remain largely anonymous.
Despite some of the mystery that has surrounded tramp art, there are some historical factors that contextualize these fascinating carved works. First, one might wonder why cigar boxes were the primary source material for tramp art. Cigar boxes were a preferred source of wood because these containers were often comprised of desirable woods which could preserve and enhance the flavor of cigars. Once the boxes and their contents were sold, the box could not be commercially reused. Therefore, tramp art was at least in part inspired by a sort of nineteenth-century recycling effort.
Second, one may ponder how a man with a career, home, and family would find himself meticulously whittling away at discarded boxes. It is likely this can be partially attributed to the nineteenth-century ideal of productivity. Idle hands were feared, and this kept many a man whittling and many a woman quilting, for example. Indeed many scholars draw the parallel between tramp art and quilts not only because they both fall under the folk art umbrella, but also because they often have similar design motifs such as hearts and clovers.
This paint-decorated tramp art frame by contemporary artist Angie Dow sold for $359USD on eBay in 2013.
As a collector, tramp art is an enticing art form that comes in many shapes, sizes, functions, and price points. There are a few factors to consider when beginning your own search. First, name recognition will come at a premium. There are very few tramp artists we know by name, but these include John Zubersky, John Zadora, Angie Dow, Frances Phillips, Scott Lim, and Freeland Tana. As with any other art piece, those which are rightfully attributed often command higher prices. Furthermore, there are some visual distinctions between European and American tramp art (though you should note that scholars have found examples nearly worldwide). According to Wallach, Americans would be considered carving purists, whereas Europeans would be more likely to use velvet and brass embellishments. You can also use the origin of the cigar box to narrow down your geographical conclusion.
Tramp art has been making waves since it was first described by Lichten. It has inspired the remarkable writing of several notable scholars, comprehensive exhibitions such as “No Idle Hands: The Myths and Meanings of Tramp Art” by The Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, and the highly regarded work of renowned interior designers. Whether you are looking to start or grow your collection of folk art, tramp art is certainly a unique decorative choice that can complement or stand out among other treasures.
Lauren Casolo is a fine art and antiques appraiser based in Atlanta, Georgia, with several years of experience in the art advisory, insurance, and auction industries.
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