News & Events
Discover Mid-America June 2007
Tramp Art remains
by Terri Baumgardner
With myth and mystery, tramp art, as an aged folk art form, lures in experts and novices alike.
That's what happened to Linda Evans when she discovered a wooden antique whittled with a small tool, possibly a pocketknife. Scouting an estate sale near Louisburg, KS, Evans stumbled upon the mantle clock.
"Believe it or not, it was just sitting on the ground," said the owner of Rutlader Antiques and Trading Company. "It just caught my eye. I thought, 'Oh, two bucks, I'll pick that up'. As I was putting it in my car, I went, 'Oh my God, that's tramp art'. I just about lost it, we don't see a lot of this around here."
The walnut mantle clock, which measures about 25 inches long and 12 inches tall, sells for $800 at Evans' shop in Louisburg. In the nine years that she's owned the antique shop, Evans has only come across about five pieces of the aged folk art. Rutlader's dealers didn't even realize the art form existed until she discovered the clock.
"Very few people in the area knew about it," Evans said. "And, very few of my dealers knew what true tramp art was until I got this clock. That's why it was so interesting for all of us. So I looked up the history because they didn't know."
Rick Villa, the assistant manager of Mission Road Antique Mall in Overland Park, KS, echoes Evans' sentiment about the uniqueness of tramp art.
"It's very distinctive," Villa said. "It is unlike anything you've seen, so you'll remember, you'll recognize it."
Crafted from boxes, inspired by
The wood is stacked in layers; and the edges of each layer are carved with a decorative pattern. But the primary characteristic of tramp art is that is always made of wood, most notably the wood of shipping crates and cigar boxes.
"The reason why there were cigar boxes for these projects is America's first tax laws were to pay for the Civil War," said Wallach, who has more than 300 artifacts in his collection.
"In 1865, in regulating the selling of tobacco, the law was mandating all cigars were sold in wood boxes of the same size. This was the time when taxation was a touchy area, but cigars used to be sold in barrels. The cigar manufacturers, knowing the sell ability of their product, tied it to a presentation of cedar and mahogany. Wherever a man went during this time, they sold cigars. Once the box was empty, they couldn't reuse the box for sale of cigars so people made pieces out of unwanted boxes."
Tramp art has an international appeal, with artifacts found in South America, South Africa, Australia and Europe, Wallach said. So, too, tramp art collectors can be found across the world.
"We have over 3,500 people on our email list, we sell around the United States and parts of Europe," Wallach said. "I think it's catching on and has caught on in a big way."
Tramp art can encompass a wide range of utilitarian artifacts.
"Tramp art was an individual thing," Wallach said. "Their only limits were their imagination."
However, the most common forms of tramp art are small boxes.
"A lot of the boxes were jewelry, sewing and document boxes," Wallach said. "Frames were the second most popular, and used for photographs, wedding certificates to put on walls. But just about anything you can imagine, they made. The breadth of the work is very distinct. They made furniture out of cigar boxes."
Typically, tramp art is merely stained with a clear finish to allow the wood grain to show through the piece.
"Most of the artists were content in staining or varnishing the pieces to protect the wood," Wallach said. "Painting, any color, is rare, very rare. Usually, it was a clear varnish or stain. The reason it is so dark today, the patina, it aged being exposed to sunlight. What the collectors like is the dark finish. But it is a distortion of the artists' intent. It would have been a very bright and clear finish."
Because of that Wallach cautions collectors from stripping the wood or disturbing the patina finish of tramp art.
"First of all, anybody that watches The (Antique) Road Show hears it, 'Do not alter the finish,'" Wallach said. "You shouldn't mess with any finishes, leave it best you can. Clean it with an air gun or soft toothbrush with water."
Anonymous untrained artists carved most tramp art. Few pieces are signed or dated.
"The Depression, certainly there was a spike in pieces made in that period," Wallach said. "But just to say it was produced during economic downturns in this country is hard to prove...until my book came out in 1998, it was assumed it was made by tramps and hobos. But when we started our research, we discovered something else. It was a home-based craft, but when we looked at collections across the United States, we saw hearts and namesake — we thought if it was anonymous art, it wouldn't have hearts and names.
“For a man trying to earn a meal, I'd think of simple pieces. So what we found was that it wasn't; we found historical photos of pieces, we connected the dots to makers, their families and it started to flower. We uncovered makers and their histories."
Tramp art can be decorated with carvings of hearts, doves, birds, eagles, flags, stars, sunflowers, leaves and anchors. However, most tramp art is simple with its notched patterns such as triangular edges.
"Most guys were comfortable with layers and notching," Wallach said. "Layers are common. Most notching is 45-degree angles. Scallops would be more unusual, but not that that makes it rare."
But typically, Wallach said, men crafted the folk art as love tokens for women.
"About 30 percent of it has hearts on it," Wallach said. "When we were examining the art form, the hearts made us realize it was made as love tokens rather than pay for a meal situation."
So it is that one mystery of tramp art is that homeless men didn’t necessarily whittle the art, but rather, an art passed from one whittler to another.
"I interviewed a man in his 80s, and I asked him, 'What did your father teach you?' Wallach asked. "He said, 'You carve your way out of hard times', and he wasn't talking about economic times. He was talking spiritually, creatively. It's a feel-good thing. It's something from nothing."
Research still evolving
"Research is still evolving," Wallach said. "We're still finding important pieces. Whereas folk art has been collecting since the early 1900s, tramp art wasn't noticed until recently."
According to Wallach, tramp art wasn't discovered until 1959, when a folklorist wrote a story for a folk art magazine.
"She was staying at a friend's house in Pennsylvania," Wallach said. "Tramp art, she had never seen anything like it, so she started to ask about it. The family called it tramp work. Then, a writer in the early ‘60s called the men who made it artists, so it became tramp art."
Tramp art is thought to have originated in Europe during the Middle Ages.
"Carvers learning to carve in an apprenticeship situation," said Matt Lippa, a tramp art dealer based in Mentone, AL. "As part of the apprenticeship, they would practice different forms. At one point, an apprentice was sent to other places. In the course of that, the word trumpen, in German, refers to walking, tramping around. As far as I know, the word refers to the movement in the apprenticeship. That is where it has its roots, art, the tramp art was a name given to stuff produced as people walked around."
Tramp art is believed to have emerged in the United States in the mid-1800s and was a common folk art form through the 1940s, Wallach said. While there seems to be a peak of tramp art carved during times of economic hardship, the fact the folk art was made by tramps, gypsies and hobos is a myth.
"It's very appealing, there's even lots of articles today that state it is made by tramps and hobos because it reads nice," said Wallach, who has studied more than 8,000 artifacts while researching material for his tramp art book. "It gives people a romantic tie to this. I can't say it didn't exist, but the history we've got is family histories."
Wallach's research reveals that tramp art was found in more than 40 ethnic groups, with 99 percent of the artifacts being indistinct in who crafted the folk art.
Lippa's research also reveals an international flair to the aged folk art form.
"If you follow the migration patterns of people who have a history of carving is where it shows up," Lippa said. "So the Northeast and upper Midwest is primarily where people carve with German and Scandinavian settlements. Tramp art came out of Holland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands."
Although tramp art may have international origins, it is becoming more difficult to find the art form in other countries.
"In the last five to ten years, I've been traveling to Europe and it's harder to find in those countries," Lippa said. "Canada, with people of French origin, you do find a fair amount of tramp art originating in the 1920s through the ‘50s in eastern Canada, the Quebec area."
Because of the international origins of tramp art, Lippa notes ethnic styles of the art form.
"The German pieces tend to be finer in carving with, generally speaking, darker woods," Lippa said. "They tend to be earlier in age, with less paint on it. Scandinavian pieces tend to be cruder, more likely to find paints of the period on it and less layering."
The art form is likened to women who quilt; it is a talent handed down from father to son.
"When it was discovered, the thought was it was originating in the Pennsylvania area where there was a lot of industry, with a lot of workers making folk art in New England," Wallach said. "It was more prevalent in the northern states with cold winters. It appealed to people that couldn't stay idle; they had to be busy. It was passed down from neighbor to neighbor, and relatives such as a father to son. We've never found written instruction son how to do it, it just seemed to arrive spontaneously."
However, Lippa has discovered patterns of tramp art.
"In terms of the highpoint of tramp art, I think by the 1930s, it had been more accepted as an art form," Lippa said. "During that period, there were articles on how-to."
A fickle market
"It's not where most collectors would come to look to find pieces of tramp art," Villa said. "But, of course, a lot of it finds its way here. There are dealers in Kansas City have some really nice pieces, but its not like what I've seen in the East. The thing about Kansas City, when it comes to antiques, we don't have the same kind of market that you have on the coasts. Which makes it nice to find pieces here because they are more affordable."
Mission Road Antique Mall recently sold a tramp art picture frame for $1,700.
“For people who know, that was a good deal for that piece,” Villa said.
Rich Hoffman, a dealer at Mission Road and at the Christopher Filley shop in Kansas City, MO, searches out tramp art wherever he can find it. Currently, he has a number of pieces priced from $1,800 to $275.
“We wait for a specific collector to come by,” said Hoffman. “It’s so scare people are losing interest. Though highly desirable to collectors, I don’t see a lot of new collectors coming on board.”
The prices of tramp art, however, are likely to rise as demand outweighs supply. Prices, in general, range from a few dollars to $20,000.
"In terms of dollars spent, people who are making more money are the ones who are spending it," Lippa said. "So, more stuff is coming out of the Midwest, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Wisconsin, and then it generally moves to the major cities on the coasts and the Northeast. It's getting harder to find good pieces because they are being purchased and go into private collections. It's become more popular, so the stuff is not as plentiful. A piece you could buy for $50 is now selling for $500."
Lippa hosts an online gallery, Artisans Gallery with about 60 pieces of tramp art in his collection. He also serves as a tramp art advisor for Schroeder's Antique Price Guide. Although Lippa is currently based in Alabama, he lived in Davenport, IA in the late 1980s and early 1990s. While in the Midwest, Lippa was an antique dealer and collector.
However, Lippa offers words of caution in collecting tramp art.
"That is tramp art is being made in wood, today,"
Lippa said. "In the last five or ten years, people are making new
tramp art and selling it. New craftsmen have the art form.
Rocket book returns
In 1952, a science fiction writer named Phillip St. John wrote a novel titled Rocket Jockey. It was an award-winning novel in its day. It became popular in the children’s science fiction arena. My then brother-in-law to be was given this book by his mother in 1953, who inscribed and signed the inside cover.
The book was read a bit by him but in the mid-1960s it became a favorite of his daughter, my niece Victoria. She would read it regularly and when there wasn't time she would look at the pictures. I guess she would fantasize about being an intergalactic explorer or becoming a famous scientist.
Brother-in-law Paul was a policeman in Madison, WI. Having a roving eye and a job that attracted young women, his marriage to my sister eventually was in shambles. They divorced in 1967.
He retired from the police department, remarried and moved to the Los Angeles area taking the book with him. He died a few years later from cancer.
There was always a rift between wife number-two and my sister. My niece and nephews never got any keepsakes relating to their father. Victoria wanted a copy of the old Rocket Jockey book as an aid to remember some good times. She had moved to Colorado and her mom moved to Overland Park, KS.
In the following years, she had come across several copies in old bookstores and flea markets but they were way too expensive. One store was asking for $100 for the “rare” book. Most were in the $40-plus range. She was either in nursing school or on a new job but always on a very tight budget. She couldn't pay that much. Still, she was always on the hunt.
She ended up in Reno, NV working for an oncology department. My sister had remarried and moved to the West Coast. Her second husband of 18 years passed away. His body was shipped back to his hometown area and was to be buried in Kansas City, MO. Victoria took time off and flew in to console her mom. They laughed, cried, went to lunches and slummed in antique shops.
A neighboring community on the Kansas side of the metro area is called Olathe. There were some good little second-hand and antique malls to visit. They ended up at the Sentimental Journey Antique store. This was a large mall-type store with many booths to look at. Victoria still hunting, went to the bookshelves. At one booth, they were having a half price sale on the old books.
There it was! Rocket Jockey by Phillip St. John on the bottom row. She saw the $8 price tag and snatched it up, and held it to herself. She was gloating about the great bargain she had gotten. The book was in good condition. She opened it up and her eyes glazed over and then welled up with tears and emotion.
On the first page of the inside cover, written in familiar cursive was the inscription: “To my son Paul on your birthday in 1953.” It was signed by her grandmother.
The entire store was in tears that day and so am I five years later as I write this story.
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