What is Tramp Art? - Definition & History

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Do you need expensive materials to make art? How about just scrap wood and a pocket knife? In this lesson, explore a type of creative work known as tramp art.

What is Tramp Art?

Have you ever made something out of discarded materials? In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, people made art from scrap wood, and some of these works came to be known as tramp art. Tramp art is the name given to objects made with small pieces of wood taken from everyday sources like wooden cigar boxes and shipping crates. Tramp art was made using a technique called chip carving. Scrap wood was chipped into smaller pieces and used to create and decorate objects like picture frames and storage boxes. The decorated surfaces tended to have geometric shapes because of the way the wood was cut, notched with a V shape on its end and then glued together.

Example of tramp art
Example of tramp art

Tramp art didn't require expensive equipment or a large art studio. All the artist needed was a pocket knife and scrap wood. The name 'tramp art' is a misnomer and comes from a mistaken assumption that the people who made these objects were tramps. Many people who made tramp art lived in homes and communities.

History of Tramp Art

Tramp art was popular from roughly the 1870s through the 1940s. No one knows for sure how the practice got started. But the materials used to make it, especially wooden cigar boxes, had become standard around the 1850s. Cigar smoking was very popular at the time, and by law, the boxes couldn't be reused by cigar manufacturers, so there were plenty of them around.

Example of the type of wooden cigar box used to make tramp art
Image of wooden cigar box

The people who made tramp art weren't trained artists. They taught themselves how to chip the wood and assemble objects. Some sources suggest that tramp art was made by Scandinavian and German immigrants, some of whom were itinerant workers and tradesmen, which means they traveled from place to place selling goods and services. But not all tramp art was made by wanderers or people without permanent homes. It took time and patience to assemble tramp art objects. Some complicated items like large furniture pieces took several years to make.

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