Tramp Art Trinket Box Artifact Highlight #16

This beautiful wooden trinket box was donated to our collection in 1964. The lid holds a photo of a child and the interior is lined with yellow satin.

According to the donor it was made of cigar boxes in 1916 by a Chinese prisoner at Folsom Prison. The box is made in a style known as “tramp art.”

Tramp art is an art movement that dates to the late 1800s, known for the use of small pieces of recycled wood, often from discarded shipping crates or cigar boxes. Boxes and picture frames with characteristic layers of carved geometric patterns were the most common examples, although larger pieces like lamps, mirrors and furniture were also made.

Tramp art is not defined by any set patterns, so no two pieces are identical, and all reflect the individuality and creativeness of the artist. Tramp art was made around the world, but it was especially popular in the United States during the Great Depression.

Tramp art was mostly made at home by anyone with a pocketknife who, without formal training in the arts, were capable of creating objects of artistic value. It was also created by tradesmen, carpenters, and vagrants traveling from place to place peddling their wares, but this was not necessarily as commonplace as the name might suggest.

Making tramp art was labor-intensive and it was often fragile, so its creation was not in tune with the nomadic lifestyle. The pieces were often unsigned and undated. Art dealers dealing in folk art found that the term “tramp art” enhanced their value and appeal. Mass production of inexpensive household objects, as well as the shift from wooden to cardboard cigar boxes led to the decline of tramp art in the late 1930s.

Auburn Journal July 22, 1954

The box was donated to our collection by Moya Bemis in 1964. Moya was the daughter of Elmer Gum, the famous Placer County sheriff.

Auburn Journal May 8, 1958

She followed in her father’s footsteps and spent her 40-year career working for the Sheriff’s Department as a civil deputy. She was the president of the Placer County Employee Association and the Chairwoman of the Business and Professional Women’s Club of Auburn.

Auburn Journal April 23, 1964

She was also the president of the Auburn Parlor No. 233 Native Daughters of the Golden West, and the secretary of the Placer County Historical Society.