What is Tramp Art?

Unique objects represent an unusual type of folk art.
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“My aunt plans to leave me a tramp-art jewelry box in her will, but I’m not sure I even like it,” an acquaintance told me, some years ago. “Was it really made by a tramp?”

Undoubtedly not! Tramp art is the whimsical name given to a folk-art form that was popular ca. 1870 to 1940. Boxes, picture frames, religious artifacts, and decorative objects were chip-carved from cigar boxes and, less often, from packing crates. The wood was notch-carved with squares, triangles, and rectangles, then layered to created three-dimensional, boldly geometric pieces. Some are inlaid with carved hearts, leaves, or stars; others feature applied decoration made of “found” materials like bits of china or mirrored glass. Larger pieces can run to mantel clocks and tables with drawers.

tramp art picture frames, tramp art house

Tramp-art picture frames, boxes and multi-tier containers, and architectural miniatures, from a collection in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The name conjures images of carefree hobos whittling in the open doorway of a moving boxcar. Though no doubt there were itinerants who bartered wares for food or shelter, tramp art is both fragile and labor intensive—and thus not consistent with a nomadic lifestyle. According to long-time tramp-art dealer Clifford A. Wallach, the term was first mentioned in a 1959 article by Frances Lichten in Pennsylvania Folk Life magazine; she called it “tramp work.” Articles in the 1960s and later called it tramp art; dealers found the name enhanced the mystique of these largely undated and unsigned pieces.

miniature church, tramp art

The miniature church is made of carved, layered, and varnished wood; early 20th century.

Tramp art is relatively easy to find through websites like folkartisans.com, trampart.com, trocadero.com, and, of course, on such websites as eBay and Ruby Lane. A simple picture frame might go for $100 or less; a small, nicely decorated box for $250; prices for exceptional pieces exceed $2,000. No patterns have ever been found for tramp art. Each piece was individual. Regardless of provenance or rarity of materials, we appreciate tramp art for the skill, patience, and imagination it involved.

tramp art picture frame

An unusual picture frame has multiple styles of carved notches and layered corners.

A Genre Now Respected

A recent book on the form, Idle Hands: The Myths and Meanings of Tramp Art by Laura M. Addison, came from an exhibit at Santa Fe’s Museum of National Folk Art.

tramp art collection

Boxes and picture frames from the Brooklyn collection.

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