Tramp Art as a Form of Early Recycling
Tramp Art is a form of folk art that was made in America between 1870 and the end of 1930s. Recycling wooden cigar boxes and produce crates, the artist used chip-carving and layered pieces into frames, small decorative boxes such as jewelry boxes, sewing caddies, and even full-sized pieces of furniture.
The technique of chip carving was first introduced to America in the early nineteenth century by German and Scandinavian immigrants. Wood is cut at an angle, usually in a "U" or "V" pattern, and the resulting chip is pried or “notched” out. Tramp artists borrowed this technique and painstakingly layered the chips so that each piece was unique. Making tramp art pieces became a popular pastime in the second half of the nineteenth century in almost every region of the United States and also in Canada. The Virginia Historical Society on their website writes:
“Constructing a piece of tramp art did not require superior carving skills, elaborate tools, or costly materials. Patience, imagination, and a penknife were all that was needed. Discarded cigar boxes and fruit crates, made of soft, thin sheets of cedar, mahogany, and maple usually provided the raw materials for the carved decoration. This decoration was then glued or nailed to the object or piece of furniture to be embellished. The use of discarded and recycled materials, the commonness of both maker and the types of objects made, and the quirky and sometimes bizarre nature of the finished pieces may have contributed to the designation of this folk-art form as "tramp art" in the 1940s. Tramp art was also called the "landlubber's scrimshaw" because of the painstaking and time-consuming nature of its creation.”
The most common finishes for Tramp Art were lacquer or stain, although you will also see some painted surfaces. Making Tramp Art could be done with just a pen knife and recycled wood leading to the widespread lore that it was made by wandering souls, or “hobos”, and bartered for food and shelter. While there is some truth to this lore, many who produced tramp art were skilled craftspeople who devoted major amounts of time to their creative pursuits. Typical with folk art, most tramp art is unsigned and undated, leaving the origins of a piece a mystery.
Here are some good reference articles and books on Tramp Art:
- Tramp Art Bureau, Virginia Historical Society
- Tramp Art, The Ames Gallery
- Tramp Art History, Artisans
- Making a Tramp Art Frame, Woodcarving Illustrated
- Tramp Art: A Folk Art Phenomenon, Helaine Fendelman and Jonathon Taylor, 1999
- Tramp Art, Another Notch: Folk Art from the Heart, Clifford A, Wallach, 2009
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