Popularized in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the term "tramp art" refers to hand-crafted decorative objects made by layering small wood chips. The edges of the wood were not carved, and the layers were held together with nails or with glue made from animals and heated to become adhesive. Most tramp art items were made with simple tools such as a pocket knife.
Contrary to popular belief, tramp art wasn't created by travelers in exchange for food or housing but by local untrained artisans. These artists were not anonymous, but instead celebrated, and often featured in newspapers and given awards.
Tramp artists utilized scrounged recycled materials such as cigar boxes, packing crates, and corrugated cardboard. Although the most common tramp art pieces are boxes, the style was used to decorate everything from frames to clock cases to furniture to crucifixes.
Tramp art was made world-wide, wherever materials were available, but it was more prevalent in areas with long, cold winters as it gave local men something to occupy their time. Although early historians believed that the style began in Europe, pieces seem to have originated in both Europe and the U.S. at the same time. European tramp art can sometimes be identified by the cigar boxes that were used, and many European tramp art pieces incorporate velvet and brass.
Tramp art was a predominantly male art form and open to individual interpretation. There are no set patterns or cultural styles, so each piece reflects the artistry and culture of its creator. No two pieces are identical.