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Collecting Mania: Tramp Art

Updated on May 29, 2010

Tramp art's geometric layers and whimsical embellishments demonstrate the fine art of making treasure out of trash. Tramp-art objects captivate and fascinate. The angles and shadows created by the notched edges and layered slats speak an aesthetic language that expresses an extraordinary presence. The pieces represent an obvious achievement and communicate the joy their makers took in creating them.

In its common form, a tramp-art object is distinguished by thin pieces of wood, carefully shaped, edge notched, and most often applied and glued layer upon layer to create pieces of startling texture and harmony. Stylistically derivative of early northern and eastern European ornamental wood and chip carvings, the combination of bold geometric patterns and such embellishments as pulls, figures, and bits of mirror lend an elegance and fancifulness that make one marvel at the artisan's ingenuity.

Tramp-art makers were not often trained craftsmen, but appear to have been people who wanted to decorate and personalize everyday objects. Presumably the first tramped-up objects were dresser boxes that would be used and seen every day. A plain, unadorned cigar box to hold personal effects did not satisfy the late-19th- and early-20th-century Victorian aesthetics for order and ornamentation, so the makers dressed the boxes in a manner more consistent with the style of the era. As the popularity of the craft spread, the scale and complexity of the objects being adorned increased as well.

The term "tramp art" conjures the most romantic and ethereal of images: carefree hoboes sitting around campfires, whittling away on scraps of wood while talking of their travels. But this is largely inaccurate. We know from oral tradition that edge carvers and their predecessors made objects known by many names: edge carving, knifework, whittling, tramp work, hobo art, knick carving, and, simply, wood carving.

The early association with the word "tramp" probably occurred because itinerant carvers appeared to live like tramps and hoboes. This generalization led to the association with only some of the people who make tramp art. It is evident that most tramp-art pieces are too fragile and intricate to have been created while the maker was traveling. These objects never would have withstood the rigors of the road, and it would have been difficult to carry the necessary raw materials for even a modest-sized item. Larger pieces required many cigar boxes and many hours to make, so they were most likely made as a hobby on long, dark winter evenings.

Tramp-art techniques appear to have been taught by word of mouth, practical demonstration, and imitation. The simplicity of chip carving allowed objects to be decorated wherever a carver happened to be and whenever free time was available.

While there are many boxes, frames, and other pieces with initials and dates, tramp-art makers are largely anonymous. In rare instances a handwritten note will accompany a piece mentioning the maker, the recipient of the gift, or a member of the maker's family. An object with a complete history rarely appears, but when it does it is most often associated with impressive furniture pieces.

Continued In Collecting Mania: Tramp Art Part 2

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