Tramp Art Comes Home: What to Know About The Folksy Decorative Art

The category "tramp art" loosely defines decorative accessories crafted by notch-carving or edge-carving bits of layered scrap wood into elaborate mirrors, boxes, and sometimes even furniture. Most popular in the mid-19th century until the beginning of the 20th century, tramp art is being rediscovered by antique and design enthusiasts alike. Mainstream companies like Pottery Barn and Serena & Lily have made their own reproductions of tramp art in recent years, but die hard tramp art collectors seek out original pieces for their charming element of humanity - tramp art is a wonderful reminder that people will create and surround themselves with beauty even in the most modest circumstances. Our June Gallery Auction includes a substantial collection of tramp art, so read on find out what you need to know about the art form.
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Tramp art wasn't actually made by tramps.

Though it does a good job of evoking the appropriate image of a humble character literally whittling away the hours, the name "tramp art" is misleading. Rather than being created by itinerants, tramp art was more often the natural product of our early American Protestant ethics - good working people in the 19th century were uncomfortable with idle hands. So farmers, bakers, factory workers, and really any other kind of laborer with a moment of down time, picked up their paring knives and a bit of scrap wood and gave way to their artistic impulses.

Tramp art rose and fell with the popularity of cigars.

Though people made tramp art from really any scrap wood, from shipping crates to soap boxes, far and away the most common material used to create tramp art was wood from cigar boxes, and the heyday of tramp art coincided exactly with the height of their production. Before cigarettes took over the tobacco market, Americans smoked cigars. Until the middle of the 18th century, cigar manufacturers sold cigars in large barrels or crates of 100 cigars or more. But in the 1840's cigars started to be sold in smaller boxes of 20-50, and in 1863 the American government made these boxes mandatory, and required that they could only be used once. Hence a proliferation of cigar box wood, just waiting to be re-purposed.

The seminal article on tramp art that first brought it to the attention of collectors everywhere was written in 1959 by a woman named Frances Lichten, who was the daughter of a cigar manufacturer, in the magazine Pennsylvania Folklife. In it, Lichten relates all the different ways she remembers people making artistic use of the byproducts of her father's cigar company, from women making ash trays out of cigar labels glued to the bottom of glass trays to cushion covers woven from the ribbons used to tie bundles of cigars together, and, of course, the carving of used cigar box wood into mirrors, picture frames, comb holders and boxes small and large.

But by the first decades of the 20th century, cigarettes were losing their stigma as a declassé mode of tobacco ingestion. The cigarette-making machine was invented in the 1880s and farmers were growing new strains of cigarette-friendly tobacco. Cigarettes were suddenly cheaper to produce and smoke. As cigarettes took over from cigars, the production of cigar boxes waned, taking tramp art with them.

Tramp art likely has European roots.

Tramp art proliferated in the parts of the United States that were settled by large numbers of Northern and Eastern Europeans like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, and it shares the aesthetic and technique of folk carvings from places like Germany. Tramp art and Black Forest art are often confused or combined into a single genre. It's even been suggested that the name "tramp art" comes from the German word trampen, which means "to hitch hike" but since the term "tramp art" is a modern name applied to an antique art, and the men who made it weren't actually wanderers, that probably isn't the case.
fullsizeoutput_bfA Large German Tramp Art Frame with Sampler

Tramp art is cool.

Like its cousins folk art and outsider art, tramp art is often overlooked by those who consider themselves "serious" art collectors or designers as a dusty relic. But more and more top contemporary designers are featuring it in their work. Like most antiques, tramp art is at its best when deftly mixed with things from other styles and periods. It also shows well in groups - a lot of tramp art goes a long way. No matter how you feature it, though, the beauty of tramp art will always be in the quiet humility of its creation. Tramp artists garnered neither fame nor fortune from their work, only the satisfaction of making something beautiful out of something mundane.

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View all tramp art in the June Gallery Auction

Created by LLA Content Director Elizabeth Sharp