While the term “tramp” seems insensitive—in light of our modern understanding of poverty, mental illness and homelessness—it was used for many years to refer to a wide range of men (usually) who lived on the streets, in fields, or “rode the rails.” Sometimes the notion of “hobo life” was given a romantic twist—illustrated by a carefree, unharnessed free spirit enjoying his “plenty of nuthin’.” Such a sentimental rewriting was, no doubt, unfortunate and incorrect.
“Tramp Art,” such as the photo frame pictured above, became popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Made from scavenged fruit crates and cigar boxes, the frames were crafted by gluing-together graduated strips of the recycled wood, chip-carving and, finally, varnishing them. This folk art form possibly originated in Eastern Europe and spread West. And the extravagance of the finished piece was limited only by the creativity and ambition of the craftsman. Examples of tramp art work range from modest little trinket boxes to an altar presented to the Pope. And, despite its name, most tramp art was not made by the homeless. It was a simple, easy-to-learn craft which was likely popular with boys working in shop class or men with a few weekend hours to kill.
The frame above, made around 1910, bears no signature, date or evidence of its provenance. Nevertheless, it is a charming, nicely-made and well-preserved piece of vintage folk art.