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Collecting Mania: Tramp Art Part 2

Updated on May 29, 2010

The majority of tramp-art pieces used cedar cigar-box wood, which was soft enough to cut and carve and plentiful at the time. Measuring only about three sixteenths of an inch thick, the wood required the innovation of applied layers to create a heavier, more solid form. Some objects were made from thicker packing crates.

The relative ease of cutting and shaping straight-edged squares, rectangles, and triangles with the tools available - a pocketknife or razor - likely influenced the geometric aspects of the style. The wood slats were often precisely edge carved in repetitive patterns to form a distinctive and immediately recognizable V-chip or notch motif. Sometimes starting with a single cigar box as a base, built-up pyramidal layers were glued and/or nailed, much like appliqued work, to all exposed surfaces.

Although sometimes each layer was only edge or notch carved, bold squares and rectangles were typically layered in geometric patterns that belied the object's function. These layers could be painted and combined with other found materials. It is common to find tramp-art objects textured with broken bits of household china and mirrors, fabrics, and photographs. Drawer- and doorknobs of porcelain, brass, or hand-carved wood are used as pulls and decoration. Some artisans simply worked in the colorful lithographed labels from their cigar-box cache, especially those depicting beautiful young women. Carved hearts, stars, leaves, animals, and people, sometimes painted, grace numerous tramp-art objects.

An advantage to creating tramp art was that the final form often obscured and overwhelmed the simple construction and unskilled woodworking technique.

Except for a few whimsical works, most tramp art was meant to be used. Within the genre, almost every known style of furniture and decorative art of the time is represented. The most plentiful tramp-art forms - not only because they were easiest to make but also because they were used by most everyone - include simple bureau and dresser-top boxes and picture frames. Equally prevalent are small boxes for jewelry and sewing supplies. Other fairly common forms include wall pockets, wall boxes, comb cases, and doll-size furniture.

Complicated designs are less likely to have been created more than once. Rare pieces of tramp art include such religious artifacts as altars and reliquaries. Full-size furniture pieces are even more unusual; among these are plant stands, chairs, and a chaise longue. The rarest tramp-art objects are fanciful creations and stunning examples of skill like a 24-inch long Brooklyn Bridge model and the birdhouse shown here.

A perplexing issue for tramp-art historians is the many pieces with nearly identical design patterns, apparently based on the same plan. But few, if any, plans have been uncovered which has left the experts to wonder how it could be that these virtual clones of identical items were produced right across the country. There are nearly identical tables, comb cases, medicine cabinets, mantel-clock cases, and other categories in which numerous pieces have been found with the same motifs. The profusion of recurring patterns and variations on themes using hearts, stars, leaves, birds, diamonds, and circles to accent objects is also common.

Continued In Collecting Mania: Tramp Art Part 3

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