A Tramp-art Picture Frame

January 3, 2017


A folk-art phenomenon of yesteryear was so-called “tramp art”— wood items handcrafted from discarded materials, ostensibly by hoboes, either to sell or to barter for food or drink. Pictured here (see photo) is a tramp-art frame with its religious oleograph (which I acquired for my collection in 2002).

The art form largely derives from “chip carving,” an edge-notching technique found over the world, perhaps most influentially in Germany and northern Europe. Beginning about the last third of the nineteenth century, as U.S. coast-to-coast rail lines made tramping more and more viable, the art continued far into the twentieth century. It was declining by 1920 but lasted through the Great Depression and into the 1940s.

Folklorist Francis Litchten named it “tramp work” (in Pennsylvania Folklife, spring 1959), and it began to be actively collected thereafter, even by prestigious galleries that upgraded the term to “tramp art.” In addition to picture frames, it included everything from trinket boxes, to humidors, vanities, lamps, crosses, wall-hung match safes, clock frames, and doll-house furniture—even actual full-scale furniture! (For more, see Helaine Fendelman and Jonathan Taylor, Tramp Art: A Folk Art Phenomenon, New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1999.)

The picture frame shown in the photo (about 121/2 by 151/4 inches) is rather typical of tramp art. It exhibits the common technique of assembled edge-notched and layered pieces of wood, usually salvaged from crates and cigar boxes.

In fact, the frame reveals (at center of left upright) portions of embossed crowns and the phrase “[NEDERLAN]DSCHE SIGAR[EN]” (i.e., “Dutch Cigars”), showing the benefit of careful examination with magnifier and oblique light. Although glue was often used, in this instance tiny nails hold the stair-stepped layers in place. A piece of scrap leather (top center) was turned into a hanger. (The picture—a German-printed oleograph of the Virgin appearing at Lourdes in 1858—may be original to the frame, since it is fastened in with the same small nails.)

It must be said that not all tramp art was made by itinerants; to the contrary, most of it was probably done in home settings. Even so, however, the reliance on salvaged material, a pocket knife, and a rustic aesthetic always kept it fundamentally humble. (More on tramp art in my next blog.)