Take some wooden cigar boxes and a penknife. Add creativity, carving skill, and the patience to plan and execute a project. Combine these elements with a sense of whimsy, and fashion into a decorative item. That’s the recipe for tramp art, a woodworking style characterized by layers of notched or chip-carved cigar-box wood whose heyday was from the 1870s to the 1940s. The most common forms of tramp art are boxes and frames, but there are also examples of furniture, room dividers, tabletop decorations and various household objects.
The term “tramp art” is an imperfect one—farmers, factory workers, and laborers far outnumbered the hobos and itinerants who made it. But since the phrase was first used in the 1950s, it has become a useful shorthand to describe this instantly recognizable folk art.
Clifford A. Wallach, owner of Clifford A. Wallach Tramp Art, Folk Art & Americana, and the author of three books on the topic, explains that the pastime proliferated during an industrious and frugal era. “In the 1860s, tax laws to pay for the Civil War were about tobacco. One law mandated that cigars had to be sold in standardized boxes, and the packaging could not be resold. Box manufacturers used fine wood like cedar and mahogany, and added colorful lithographs under the lids. People didn’t throw these away. That was the fuel for tramp art.”
According to Wallach, men were the primary practitioners. Most had no formal training in the arts. “You can think of it almost like men’s quilting,” he says. “They’d take apart the boxes, cut them into shapes, chip-carve the edges, and nail or glue them into the finished form.”
Another similarity to quilting is the simply astonishing craftsmanship. The regularity, symmetry, layering and level of detail far exceed what you’d expect from an untrained guy with a penknife. Design inspiration was close at hand for these carvers. “We see rosettes, flowers, diamond shapes, maybe anchors if they worked at sea,” Wallach says. “But it’s the heart that is most celebrated in tramp art. That shows deep emotion. Strangers just passing through wouldn’t have made these things. The prevalence of hearts made us rethink the ‘tramp’ legend of tramp art.”
Wallach was hooked after acquiring a small piece with a drawer. The smell of cedar and tobacco reminded him instantly of his great-grandfather’s cigar box, and his quest to learn about the craft began. For dealer Ken Farmer of Ken Farmer & Associates, the initial charm was more visual than olfactory. “I was attracted to the lithography on the labels,” says the Antiques Roadshow regular, “and by the figural nature of tramp art. I was drawn to pieces that used contrasting wood or had each layer painted a different color.”
Farmer also recognized the work that went into making tramp art. “If you have a frame with a series of interlocking parts all around the edge, you appreciate the time and skill,” he says. “The best pieces are made by people who could turn something ordinary into a thing of beauty.”
Tramp art appears frequently in German-American communities in Wisconsin, Penn-sylvania and Texas, as well as in Germany and France. But attempts to trace its exact source have been inconclusive. It certainly is a democratic art form: more than 50 ethnic groups in America have been documented as making it. The technique seems to have been transmitted informally, without the existence of published patterns.
Wallach and Farmer agree that the market is strong. “This field is accessible at all levels,” Farmer says. “You can start out spending less than $50 and work your way in to the more expensive things. That tactile and visual experience is essential in developing any kind of discernment.”
“Color is rare and adds a premium,” says Wallach. “A very strong piece can run several thousand dollars. We have sold pieces for six figures in the past.”
Most tramp art is anonymous. Notable exceptions are John Martin Zubersky, known for his expressive sunflowers, John Zadzora, and Adolph Vandertie (known as “Grand Duke of the Hobos”). Additional clues about where and when tramp art was made can be the cigar-box factory number stamped under the drawers or on the back of frames, and the type of nails used. “Before the 1880s, the nails were hand-cut,” says Farmer. “After that, they were largely machine-made.” Documented provenance translates to higher dollar value.
The perfect opportunity to view tramp art is on the horizon: No Idle Hands: The Makers and Myths of Tramp Art will be mounted by the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico from March through December 2017. “This was a show just waiting to happen,” says Laura Addison, Curator of North American & European Folk Art. “We have a large collection of tramp art, mostly with a religious theme. Tramp art has gotten a lot of attention in the marketplace, but not as much in the realm of museum scholarship. This exhibition will show the breadth and depth of tramp art, and provide a way to access the social history of the woodworkers.”
Addison has been visiting public and private collections to select the hundred or so pieces that will be on view. “Tramp art can range from the most humble objects to the most ostentatious surface treatment,” she says. Addison has seen objects that celebrate fraternal organizations, a shelf embellished with playing card suits, purses, satchels, thermometer casings, and a piece that features the symbol of the Isle of Man. Some of the works will be shown with the drawers open and upside-down to reveal their inner secrets.
The museum is planning demonstrations by contemporary artists, gallery talks, lectures, an activity table, even an opportunity to “Rename Tramp Art.” The accompanying catalog will feature essays by Addison, Eric Zafran (retired curator of European Art at the Wadsworth Athenaeum), and Leslie Umberger (curator of Folk and Self-Taught Art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum).
Addison is eagerly anticipating public reaction to the exhibition: “People will have their minds changed about the craftsmanship of tramp art.”
Tramp Art: Another Notch, Folk Art from the Heart,
Clifford A, Wallach
A Legacy in Tramp Art,
Clifford A. Wallach
Tramp Art: One Notch at a Time,
Clifford A. Wallach and Michael Cornish
Tramp Art: A Folk Art Phenomenon,
Helaine Fendelman and Jonathan Brackett Taylor
Tramp Art: An Itinerant’s Folk Art,
No Idle Hands: The Makers and Myths of Tramp Art (exhibition catalog),
available spring 2017
Ken Farmer and Associates
Clifford A. Wallach Tramp Art Folk Art, and Americana
Museum of International Folk Art