A German “tramp art” jewelry or sewing box from the 1930s. Built from an old cigar box and embellished with chip-carved layers of salvaged wood, the edges of which produce a complex geometric pattern in relief. Missing two small areas of ricrac (see photos) and showing minor wear, as might be expected from age and use.

TRAMP ART is a term for a folk art movement that was popular throughout the Western world from the 1870s until the 1940s. It embodies a particular style of woodworking whose defining characteristics include notch-carving, the use of discarded wood and simple tools, and the layering of pieces of notched wood to form geometric patterns. Using pocket knives or chisels, craftsmen made shallow chips along the edges of the pieces of wood reclaimed from cigar boxes or shipping crates—and then glued or nailed them together to produce decorative and utilitarian objects.

“Constructing tramp art was similar to how a bricklayer or mason would assemble a wall—making a whole out of many pieces by stacking and layering. Elements were added using a process not unlike the appliqué technique of a quilt maker,” one historian explains.

Notch carving was not the only technique used to construct TRAMP ART, e.g., some pieces are decorated with slightly burned match sticks positioned to give the appearance of burnished wooden edges. The heart motif is prevalent in TRAMP ART designs; boxes with hearts (such as jewelry or sewing boxes) were often made as gifts for loved ones.

TRAMP ART was made in prodigious quantities. Its popularity likely gained traction because of the widespread availability of used cigar boxes. TRAMP ART was made worldwide, wherever materials were available. Its most common forms were the box and the picture frame, but objects were made in every shape and size, including full-sized furniture.

Little can be discovered from written records about the phenomenon's early history because there were few references to it as an art form. It was only first mentioned as such in 1959, by Francis Lichten’s article in Pennsylvania Folk Life Magazine, wherein she coined the term “Tramp Work.” Later writers would subsequently refer to the entire body of work as “Tramp Art.” A 1975 exhibition organized by the American Folk Art Museum in NYC and an accompanying book, Tramp Art: an Itinerant’s Folk Art, by Helaine Fendelman, lent currency to what is arguably an unfortunate misnomer.

Some early folk art scholarship posited that, at least in its purest manifestations, folk art was made by the poor, displaced, and unschooled artisan. Even today the romantic myth of the craftsperson on the outside of convention and society is celebrated. (It is how this art is marketed and packaged!) However, research reveals that most of the early assumptions about what is still called TRAMP ART were inaccurate and poorly formed.

TRAMP ART was above all a democratic medium—popular wherever the raw materials were found. It was most prevalent in areas with long, cold winters as it gave its practitioners something to occupy their time. It was relatively easy to make, and it appealed to anyone who had a desire to take a pocketknife to wood. Mostly produced in home-based settings by those who were otherwise factory workers, farmers—or who labored in just about every other conceivable occupation—it was the art of the “Everyman.” (Some tramps or hoboes of course participated, but not in the numbers the name would imply. Many historians have pointed out that the intricate work involved suggests artists who spent a long time in one place—such as a home, a workshop, or an institution.) The art form is indeed a good example of outsider art, a term that refers to art created by the untrained who exist outside the art establishment. But by overemphasizing the term “tramp,” attention is diverted from its true origins.

TRAMP ART remains a testament to the ability of the common man, untrained in the arts, to produce objects of immense artistic integrity. The movement was one of the first to use discarded materials to make objects of art as well as those for everyday use. Note there is no proof that TRAMP ART had its beginnings in Germany or any other particular European country. It seems to have arisen around the world at about the same time. European TRAMP ART can sometimes be identified by the brands of cigar boxes that were used, and many European pieces incorporate velvet and brass.


Designer – UNKNOWN

Design Period/Year – 1930s


Production Period/Year – 1930s

Origin – GERMANY

Styles/Movements – ARTS & CRAFTS; OUTSIDER ART

Materials – WOOD

Colors – BROWN, GOLD

Condition – Good vintage condition. Shows wear consistent with age and use. Missing some chip-carved ricrac (see photos).

Dimensions – 10" W × 6 ½" D × 5 ¼" H

Quantity Available – 0