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Collecting Mania: Tramp Art Part 3

Updated on May 29, 2010

With the great number of identical pieces uncovered, it is impossible not to believe that there were printed plans in existence at the beginning of the 20th century. Multiple pieces of duplicate designs have been found in various areas of the world, which suggests the existence and dissemination of printed materials or instructional pamphlets, though few if any of these have been found.

The start of tramp art's decline can be linked to the release of the first Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck & Co. mail-order catalogs in the 1890's. Suddenly, it became possible for a family to receive a wide variety of goods without waiting for an itinerant peddler to appear.

Around the same time, near the turn of the century, cigarette smoking began to replace cigar smoking in popularity. In addition, cigar manufacturers began to replace wooden cigar boxes with less costly cardboard boxes. Both trends decreased the quantity of available wood needed by tramp-art makers.

Simultaneously, technological advances continued to lay the groundwork for labor-saving machines that increasingly replaced handwork. As electricity, telephones, radios, automobiles, and other modern scientific wonders became accessible, time and interest for home crafts like tramp art waned. Its heyday had passed by the end of the 1930's.

Since tramp art was primarily personal and utilitarian, it was considered beneath the notice of American literature during the period in which it was created. The bulk of tramp-art pieces appear to have been made from the turn of the century through the 1930's, but references to it during the period do not exist. From the late 1930's until 1959 the subject was still ignored, probably because it was considered inelegant, crude, and insignificant.

Tramp art's emergence from obscurity to a celebrated position in American folk art has been slow, as if mirroring the pace of life in the 19th century, when it originated. Since the early 1970's tramp art, once thought to be of limited interest and quantity, has gained a larger and larger audience with steadily increasing enthusiasm. There are now tens of thousands of tramp-art objects in circulation. Pieces such as boxes and mirrors, which sold for "a few cents apiece" in the late 1950's, according to records from the Pennypacker Auction in Reading, Pennsylvania, today are worth hundreds of dollars. The most unusual tramp-art pieces can command many thousands of dollars.

Age is generally less important to collectors than form, patina, and complexity. Very whimsical objects fetch a premium, as do pieces of furniture. Because signed pieces are so rare, a signature increases value greatly. New paint or recent alterations will decrease the value, but because these objects were typically used over many years, older alterations aren't necessarily a problem. Smaller items, like dresser boxes and frames, may be found at antique shops, while more significant pieces are more likely to sell through auctions or specialized folk-art dealers. As in the case of most other collectibles, be aware of what you are buying at online auctions, as cheap Chinese counterfeits are everywhere online and can certainly fool the unskilled collector into parting with a considerable amount of money in exchange for a worthless piece of junk.

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