|The best "tramp
art" exhibits fine crastmanship and creative innovation, soundly rejecting
the notion that only professional artists can create lasting works of art.
It is known by many names including hobo art, tramp work, whittling, edge
carving, knifework, and knick carving. The adoption of the word "tramp"
came about around the turn of the 20th century by the fact that some of
the earlier artists who migrated from area to area carving and producing
their art lived like "tramps" and hobos compared to the norms of the day.
Subsequently, tramp art was much more an art form of everyday life for
those so inclined, a hobby to pass the time much like needlepoint.
Tramp art can take all different forms
and incorporate many different materials including what many would consider
throw-away materials, and it can often relfect the whimsical and creative
personalities of its creator. Tramp artisans were mostly everyday people
who wanted to decorate their homes with art, and used common objects accessible
to them in creating these new art forms. For example, folk artisans would
take a common cedar wood cigar box and elaborately decorate it with wood
mosaics, buttons, mirrors, beads, and other objects to create a dresser
box suitable to hold their valuables. The cedar wood cigar box was a readily
available yet good quality raw material with which to work; hundreds of
thousands of cigar boxes were made for smokers in the early 20th century.
The style spread through word of mouth and across families, and over time
these tramp artworks became ever more elaborate and complex in their design
Much tramp art uses thin pieces of wood
shaped, notched, glued, and assembled entirely by hand. Since the wood
from cigar boxes was thin, it was easy to carve and handle with simple
implements but it needed to be applied in layers to create more rigid and
substantial forms such as furniture although other accessible objects like
packing crates were also used. While few generalities are possible, tramp
art is often reminiscent of Islamic and Eastern European art and carvings
favoring geometric patterns complemented with ornamental figures, pull
chains, and common everyday objects put to a new use in the service of
art. The ease with which thin cigar box cedar could be cut contributed
to the proliferation of complex geometric patterns combining many different
shapes. It is common to find tramp art wood pieces painted, often with
a great deal of style and talent, and wood constructions were decorated
with everything from broken pieces of china and mirrors to old photographs
and textiles. Colorful lithographed cigar box labels were also a popular
construction material, thus making use of the cigar box wood as well as
the labels with whose depicting women particularly popular.
Tramp art forms were
not made for display but rather for utilitarian uses, so some
of the more common objects are dresser boxes, comb cases, picture
frames, jewelry boxes, sewing kits, doll furniture, and wall
pockets. Rare forms are of more complex and elaborate construction
and usually reflect a great deal more skill in the maker, so
these were usually larger and more substantial pieces such as
plant stands, medicine cabinets, chairs, religious figures and
shrines, birdhouses, clock cases, and occasionally models of
public architecture such as courthouse buildings and even the
Brooklyn Bridge. There has been speculation that many of the
basic forms of tramp art were disseminated in the form of plans
that could be followed but still customized to some degree.
While this may have been true, tramp art effectively ceased
as a prolific art movement with the advent of mass merchandisers
such as Sears Roebuck who through their catalogue sales made
cost effective furniture and objects available to Americans
nationwide. The industrial tools of mass production enabled
most household objects to be made with a substantive amount
of style but at an affordable cost, and the trains made shipment
nationwide feasible for the first time. During the same time
period, cigar makers began to shift their production techniques
to use less expensive cardboard versus the thinly cut cedar
of tramp art. This made less raw material available to the makers
of tramp art during a period when cigar smoking was on the decline
ayway. By the 1930s, very little new tramp art was being produced.
Many different factors can influence the prices paid for tramp
art today, including such things as craftsmanship, patina, age,
original condition, but most of all whimsical and fun pieces
bring the strongest prices in the market. While a substantive
amount of tramp art is signed and dated, little is known about
the majority of the signed artists much less the myriad tramp
art which is unmarked.
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