Introduction:
I have been buying, selling, and studying tramp art since the mid-1980s when I bought my first piece at a flea market in NYC. There was not much scholarship available in those days and it left me wondering what tramp art was all about. The only thing that was apparent to me was what it looked like. Each piece, although similar in construction, was a unique object. They were made of wood, layered, and notch carved but I yearned to know more; who the makers were and why they made the forms they did. I could not find answers that satisfied me so I began an odyssey to explore and document my research. The outcome was authoring three books on the subject and an enduring love for an art form made from simple materials and simple tools for all of us to enjoy and cherish.

What is Tramp Art?
Tramp art is an art movement found throughout the world where small pieces of wood, primarily from discarded cigar boxes and shipping crates, are whittled into layers of geometric patterns having the outside edges of each layer notch carved. The artists used simple tools such as a pocketknife to carve the recycled wood.

It was popular in the years between the 1870s to the 1940s after which the art form started to decline. It was made in prodigious numbers. The most common forms were the box and the frame. Although there were no rules or patterns to lend commonality in the artists’ work there were objects made in every conceivable shape and size including full sized furniture and objects of whimsy.

History of Tramp Art: The Art of Layered Inspirations
We do not know much about tramp arts’ history from written records in the early years of its popularity (1870s – 1940s), because there were few if any reference of it as an art form. It was first mentioned in an article published in the Pennsylvania Folk Life Magazine written by Francis Lichten in 1959. She termed the material “Tramp Work.” Subsequently other articles began to appear in the 60s and 70s referring to the body of work as “Tramp Art.”

The presentation of the art form to the antique and art community revealed a quirky little seen body of work that began to be celebrated after a long dormant period. A museum show organized by the American Folk Art Museum in NYC and a book followed, Tramp Art an Itinerant’s Folk Art, by Helaine Fendelman, bringing more attention to tramp art.

Most of the early perceptions were created I believe because early scholars were at a loss to explain this unique art form. Early folk art scholarship believed that most pure folk art was made by the poor, displaced and unschooled artisan. Even today the study of folk art and Outsider Art celebrates the romantic myth of the folk artisan on the outside of convention and on the outside of society. It is the currency in how this art is marketed and packaged. With no written history on tramp art to source the early writers looked to establish tramp art’s boundaries by making assumptions without established scholarship. To define a segment of art based on a writer’s assumptions is problematic.

What our research uncovered after extensive examination of thousands of tramp art objects was that most of these early assumptions were inaccurate and poorly formed. As tramp art is continued to be studied more facts will be uncovered to more accurately describe the art form and place it in its proper historical perspective. Today there is a more accurate description of what tramp art is and who made these wonderful objects.

Who Were These Noble Notchers?
Tramp art was a democratic art form made around the world wherever the raw materials, (mostly cigar boxes and shipping crates), used in its construction were found. In the United States there were over 50 different ethnic groups documented making it. It appealed to men who might have made an important body of work such as ‘Sunflower’ artist John Zubersky or the wonderfully expressive wall pockets by John Zadzora but also to men who might have made one piece in their lifetime. It was easy to make and appealed to anyone who had a desire to take a pocketknife to wood.

We have uncovered hundreds of men, some women, and even children who made historical tramp art. Tramp art was mostly made in home based settings and by men who were factory workers, farmers, and labored in just about every conceivable occupation. There were tramps or hoboes who made the art form but not in the numbers the name suggests. The name tramp art was a contemporary invention and had nothing to do with the art form as a whole.

As I said tramp art is an important art movement maybe not yet comparable to other important art movements throughout our culture but it is a testament to the ability of the common man untrained in the arts to produce objects of immense artistic integrity. Their movement was one of the first to use discarded materials to make objects of art as well as utilitarian objects for everyday use.

Misconceptions or Myths of Tramp Art Explored:

Although I am writing of the myths or misconceptions associated with tramp art there are no more uncertainties about the art form than one would find with other newly discovered art forms or movements. It is not uncommon for most folk art forms to undergo fundamental changes in perception once they are studied and explored more intently. The world of art in an historical sense is constantly changing as advance scholarship is applied to better understand the different nuances as time passes and as we begin to put the new findings into context compared with known or prior assumptions. I also believe that the misconceptions regarding tramp art are more prevalent today because little serious scholarship was done in the first few decades after its discovery and because once it was termed tramp art it will always be misunderstood.

1. Was Tramp Art Made by Tramps? Most Likely No

There is a great deal of proof that tramp art was not made by tramps exclusively as the name suggests. There are only a couple of documented makers out of the hundreds of makers we have uncovered in our research who were itinerant. If we were to name the art form based on the artists’ background or profession we could use the term Farmer’s Art, or Baker’s Art, or any other occupation practiced during tramp art’s years of production. It would be far more authentic than the term tramp art. It was the art of ‘everyman‘. It appealed to anyone who had the desire to take discarded materials to make art. It was practiced in the home far from the art schools or workshops of high art. The men were unschooled in the arts but not in their hearts as evidenced by the use of hearts in their work. It is indeed a fact that the term ‘Tramp Art’ was given to the art form many years after its popularity waned so the term holds no relevance to the art form. The origin of the word tramp which is from a European derivative is inconsequential and irrelevant. By giving too much relevance to the term tramp art other than it being a catchy name we are diverted from the true origins and are spun in the wrong direction historically and scholastically.

2. The Art Form was Discovered by Germans? Not Proven

Again there is no proof that tramp art started in Germany or any European country. It seemed to arise everywhere at about the same time. Pieces in America were found that date to the same period or earlier as ones found in Europe. The German makers were no more prevalent than other nationalities carving tramp art in America and around the world. There are theories that the form was spread by apprentices who worked for many years learning a trade before heading out to find work. There are few tramp art objects that show evidence of woodworking ability since most were made in a primitive fashion. It does not seem probable after close examination of thousands of tramp art pieces to conclude that professional woodworkers had any influence or spread the form. 

3. Tramp Art Making Began During the Civil War: Probably Not

We cannot find evidence to support that theory. The earliest pieces were made in the mid-1870s years after the Great War ended. The art form was driven by the abundance of wooden cigar boxes and their availability to the artists. The wooden boxes were mandated to be used for cigar sales in the first tax laws in America after the war ended. We do have evidence of retired Civil War soldiers making tramp art but in their later years.

4. Things you should know:

I would like to impart some advice for the collector of tramp art based on my 29 years of collecting, studying and selling tramp art.

  1. Buy what you like.
  2. Buy what you can afford (although I have seldom followed this advice).
  3. Buy pieces in the best possible condition.
  4. Study the books available to get an idea of the breadth of the form and what appeals to you.
  5. Ask questions before buying. Find out what is known about the piece so you can preserve any background or histories associated with the object.
  6. Do not clean pieces with any solvents or cleaning products.
  7. We use white Elmer’s glue to secure pieces that have fallen off.
  8. Be careful of reproductions. Buy from reputable dealers with a guarantee of authenticity for life.
  9. Some collectors specialize in specific forms such as boxes, frames, painted objects, or whatever appeals to you. To Nancy and I it is a lifestyle. We live with and use tramp art as part of our everyday life.
  10. Enjoy your pieces. Each piece was created by humble hands with deep rooted feelings and with great artistic ability. They were made to be used and admired.
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