In my previous blog, “A Tramp-art Picture Frame,” I focused on a typical work of that folk-art genre. Here is a very different example (see photograph).
The preponderance of tramp-art pieces (a minority of which were actually produced by hoboes) exhibited notched carving, like all the examples in a book I cited. That signature technique was applied to wood salvaged from cigar boxes, crates, and other discarded materials, creating the quintessential tramp-art style. However, other materials—requiring different techniques—were also employed, one of them the subject of this discussion.
It is found in my collection of crosses. (That includes a little Byzantine cross, 600–700 CE; a reliquary crucifix, its back swinging open to reveal tiny saints’ relics; a “Photo Crucifix,” based on the image on the Shroud of Turin; a ceramic Rosicrucian cross; and so on.) Measuring about 81/4 by 111/2 inches, this tramp-art cross comprises used matchsticks overlaid onto a cut-out backing piece of reused quarter-inch plywood, which has a hole drilled at the top for hanging. (The plywood—not readily available until after 1928—probably dates the cross to the 1930s or 1940s.)
Matchstick construction was common for many tramp-art pieces, such as birdcage whimsies, jewel chests, crosses, and other items. A jewel box was simply made by covering a cardboard cigar box with matchsticks formed in decorative patterns—such being a natural advantage of their use. Or they could be accompanied by twigs and/or other materials, such as wire (for the birdcages for example).
Dowel rods were also used in the same way as the matchsticks, glued together. (For example, hundreds of dowel pieces composed a small box, 6 by 4 inches, from ca. 1880.) Still other improvised techniques and found materials were employed, including sheet tin; there were boxes covered over with seashells, a mirror framed with branches, a pencil box of orange-crate wood incised with lines (as by a jackknife), and so on. (See The Official Price Guide to Antiques and Other Collectibles, third ed. 1982. Orlando, FL: The House of Collectibles, pp. 732–733.)
Having begun as early as the Civil War era in America, the tramp-art fashion continued through the Great Depression and into the 1940s. Among reasons for the decline was the rise in mail-order catalogs that made mass-produced, affordable goods readily available. Also modern technology and attitudes lured the public away from handcrafted things, though leaving behind the whimsical treasures of tramp art from a simpler time.