|By Toni Mortimer Gilroy
Anyone who has watched the 1997 blockbuster movie Titanic will surely remember the scene where Rose and the other ladies at the dinner party are excused, while the men folk stay to enjoy brandy and cigars (with the exception of poor Jack Dawson, who is bluntly sent back to steerage). The year was 1912, and by then the popularity of cigar smoking had swept the industrialized world, beginning shortly after the Civil War and continuing into the 1930s.
Today, many collectibles remind us of the cigar’s heyday, including tobacco cards, advertising, cigar box labels, stamps and bands, cigar cutters and cigar store Indians. What doesn’t necessarily come to mind is tramp art. Yet without cigar boxes, there would be no tramp art. Popularized in the late 1800s/early 1900s, tramp art is actually a style of woodworking characterized by the notch carving and pyramiding (layering) of many small pieces of wood, usually scrounged from old cigar boxes. It could even be said that tramp art is one of the earliest methods of recycling. Packing crates were a common alternative to cigar boxes, and the use of both materials can be often found in the construction of a tramp art object. Wooden crates were the standard for shipping containers before the days of cardboard boxes. Like cigar boxes, packing crates were thrown away, providing crafters with free wood.
It is generally believed that tramp art evolved from folk art chip carving traditions. The artistic style, similar to that found in Black Forest carvings, indicates that it may have originated in Germany. Early examples of tramp art can be found from any number of cigar-smoking, industrialized nations, including Germany, Scandinavia, Canada and the United States.
In the first half of the 20th century, pieces carved in this fashion were commonly referred to as ’chipwork.’ It wasn’t until the late 1950s that the term tramp art began appearing in literature. Perhaps that’s why when we think of tramp art, images of hitchhiking hobos might come to mind. The name change certainly perpetuated the theory that tramps and hobos created these pieces to barter for room and board.
In some cases, that’s actually true. One very prolific carver was Fred “Fritz” Hoffman (1845-1926), who left Pennsylvania around the turn of the 20th century, ending up in Waterloo, an area of Southwestern Ontario, Canada, where a number of Pennsylvania Amish and Mennonites had gone to settle.
It was an Amish and Mennonite custom to keep a ’beggar’s room’ for the homeless and the destitute, and Hoffman is said to have made use of these lodgings from a variety of hosts. And while he apparently refused to do any physical or farm work, he did make, (and often signed), chip-carved and notched pieces to compensate his hosts for their kindness.
While Hoffman’s story is intriguing, it is by no means the norm. For one, most tramp art is largely anonymous. Additionally, in the 1970s a new interpretation appeared suggesting that both tramps and the itinerant labor force of the early 1900s had made the objects and spread the craft.
This changing point of view is largely the result of the 1975 book, Tramp Art: An Itinerant’s Folk Art by Helaine Fendelman. The first book devoted to tramp art, it was filled with photographs, and became the collector’s only reference for almost three decades. More recent research suggest that a large number of crafters were grounded in their communities, churches, occupations and families — they owned homes, paid taxes, had jobs and simply enjoyed carving as a hobby.
If most tramp art is anonymous, dating it can occasionally be made a bit easier. That’s because from 1862-1932, revenue stamps were wrapped around cigar boxes. The stamp was proof that tobacco taxes were paid and collected — once the box was opened and the stamp broken, it was against the law to reuse the box for cigar sales. More than 1,000 stamp types were issued. By identifying the stamp remnants that may be found on a piece of tramp art, it is possible to date the cigar box wood.
Nonetheless, buying tramp art can be a bit confusing, since many eBay sellers and some market dealers will label any unusual carved item as tramp art when in fact it may be something else altogether; true tramp art is identified by notch work and pyramiding. Crafted items that are sometimes mislabeled include whimseys, folk marquetry or parquetry, rustic objects, matchstick art, memory pieces, pyrography and prison art.
An exception to this is a technique known as crown of thorns, where interlocking wooden sticks are notched to intersect at right angles, forming joints and self supporting objects. These pieces have a prickly appearance, and somewhat transparent quality. It is considered tramp art, but should include crown of thorns in the description.
As for collecting tramp art, interest has escalated over the past few years. There are a few reasons for this beyond America’s fascination with folk art and a couple of new books released in the late 1990s. One is eBay; the other is The Tramp Art Collection of Sam & Myra Gotoff (Skinner, Inc., November 2002), which was the first major collection of folk art to come to auction.
“The Gotoff collection included many fine and unusual pieces. One such piece was an elaborate postcard display cabinet, which would have been made during postcard’s Golden Age (1898-1918). It sold for $3,172 (including buyer’s premium) and would be a fabulous way to display vintage postcards today,” said Martha Hamilton, a folk art expert at Skinner. “At the same sale, we sold five tramp art frames for $235, about $47 each. What better way to display an old family photograph? Picture frames are especially common because tramp art came into vogue around the same time as portraiture photography, and can usually be found in the $35-$85 range.”
Unlike some forms of folk art, the labor intensive nature of the craft makes fakes few and far between. Even less common items, such as pieces of furniture, don’t lend themselves to reproduction. Consider the 1920s tramp art sideboard sold by Skinner at the Gotoff sale for more than $20,000. A princely sum for a tramp – until you consider that such a piece would require about 500 cigar boxes and at least that many hours.
As for building a collection, Hamilton believes tramp art is one area of folk art that still has enormous potential. “While prices are on the rise, there is not quite as much competition in this area as other areas. And, since the pieces tend to be utilitarian in nature, they can complement other collecting niches.”
Tramp Art: A Folk Art Phenomenon by Helaine Fendelman & Jonathan Taylor (1999, Stewart, Tabori & Chang) Co-author Fendelman wrote the first authoritative book on tramp art in 1975 (Tramp Art: An Itinerant’s Folk Art) and revisits tramp art in this book with lots of photographs and historical facts.
Tramp Art One Notch At A Time: The Craft, the Techniques & the Makers by Clifford A. Wallach & Michael Cornish (1998, Wallach–Irons Publisher) A book devoted to tramp art with lots of photographs and historical facts, and covers all the variations of technique (including crown of thorns), form and materials.
Sholl Antiques, www.tramp-art.com. A very informative site offering information, images, articles for sale, and even instructions on how to make your own tramp art.