In conversation with….Clifford Wallach, tramp art expert

Editorial Staff

Editorial Staff Art, Books

Clifford Wallach is a widely recognized expert in the field of tramp art—a branch of folk art in which objects are constructed from chip carved wood. As an antiques dealer, scholar, and author of two books on the subject, Tramp Art: One Notch at a Time (1998) and most recently Tramp Art: Another Notch, Folk Art From the Heart (2009), Wallach has spearheaded research and appreciation for this lesser-known art form. Here he share some insights with us.

What is tramp art? And what are some of the misconceptions about it?

Tramp art is a woodworking style that uses small pieces of wood, primarily from discarded cigar boxes and shipping crates, whittled into layers of geometric shapes, the outside edges of which are notched or chip carved. Tramp art was madeby people,  mostly men, who had no formal training in the arts. The earliest pieces date from the 1870s, and by the 1940s its popularity had waned.  There is much discussion about where tramp art originated and the mystery continues.  Once thought to have come to this country from Europe, such as Germany with its rich woodworking traditions, tramp art actually seems to have arisen wherever men smoked cigars and the raw materials, their empty cigar boxes, were available.  One of the romantic myths about tramp art revolves around its name, which implies that its makers were tramps or hobos traveling around the country making pieces in exchange for food or board.  Although the name was given to the art form when tramp art was first rediscovered in the late 1950s, the main practitioners were home-based, not transient.

Can you describe how it was made (materials, techniques, and embellishment)?

Tramp art was made by fashioning discarded materials into utilitarian or other objects using humble tools. In America the proliferation of tramp art went hand in hand with the revenue laws starting in the 1860s that required that all cigars be sold in wooden boxes of the same size, which could not be used for resale and had to be discarded.  The manufactures of these boxes used fine woods such as mahogany or cedar. The artist would collect enough cigar boxes—or shipping crates—for his project and take them apart. He would then cut the wood, using primarily a common pocketknife or sometimes a file, into different shapes, such as hearts or stars; next he would chip carve the outside edges of each piece before assembling the layers into the finished form. One of the most common decorations on tramp art is the heart. As an intimate symbol often reserved for a friend or a lover, its use—which is often taken for granted—is a telling point for understanding the nature of tramp art.

There seems to be a great deal of variety in tramp art, but could you describe some of the more common forms and features?

The most common forms of tramp art are boxes and frames. The box was the simplest form to make because the artist could use a box as the main compartment and then build outward.  Frames were very common; most of them were small due to the limitations of the size of the raw materials.  Some makers used crate woods to make bigger constructions like full-sized furniture, larger frames, children’s furniture, or items of whimsy.  In rare cases makers made secret compartments in their work.

Is it possible to date tramp art, or to determine where an example was made? Are there any regional characteristics?

Many pieces can be identified as to where they were made because the tax laws in the United States divided each state into districts, and each factory was given a number. Stamps with these identifying numbers can be found under drawers or on the back of frames. The wood used for making tramp art was so similar that regional differences are not discernible, however in some areas certain forms were favored.

How did you first get interested in tramp art?

In the middle 1980s I acquired a small vanity with decoupage flowers under glass that the dealer called tramp art and mentioned was made out of wooden cigar boxes. When I opened its small drawer it smelled of the cedar wood used to make it. When my great-grandfather died he left our family a wooden cigar box filled with his pocketknife, a deck of cards, and other trinkets. As a child I used to play with the fun objects in the cigar box while enjoying the rich aroma of the wood. The light went on and the connection was made: this small rather unimposing piece of tramp art was going to change my life forever. It began innocently at first. I wanted to find other examples and I had questions. I wanted to know where it came from, who made it, and how they did it. Over the years since then I have found countless boxes, frames, and objects of all kinds—including pieces of heroic scale—and it was through the examination of these objects that I was able to grasp a fuller image of tramp art and its humble often misunderstood noble notchers.

Could you tell me about one of your favorite pieces?

I know this is going to sound silly but the last piece I bought is usually my favorite.  I was interviewed for a segment on the Martha Stewart TV show and the last question was what was my favorite piece?  The cameras were waiting to shoot the 8-foot sideboard or the tall-case clock in our home, but I selected a small box and started to gush about its beauty. This small box, which I had just purchased, did not compare to the masterpieces I had acquired over a lifetime of collecting tramp art, but to me it was my greatest new treasure.

What is the market for tramp art like? What factors contribute to a work’s value?

Today tramp art is in an exciting period of discovery.  Unlike more traditional folk art that has been collected for generations, tramp art has only been recognized since the late 1950s.  In the fifty years since people have become aware of its charm, whimsy, and heart-felt sentiment.  Most of the pieces found are anonymous, but lately we have been successful in identifying certain master artists. Unlike comparable examples of other types of folk art, today a piece of tramp art in good shape and over 100 years old can be found for a few hundred dollars or less.  More outstanding, over-the-top examples can go for thousands of dollars, but the entire range is still reasonably priced.

For more on tramp art and to purchase books by Clifford Wallach visit
www.trampart.com.