Coney Island Ferris Wheel (tramp art)

From The Brighton Toy and Model Index
2016 Exhibit

Coney Island Ferris Wheel (tramp art)

BTMM map 072.gif
Arch Two , Area 72
Arch Two, Overhead
==This exhibit is scheduled to go on display during 2016, as part of the museum's 25th anniversary improvements==,

A clockwork model of a two-wheel fairground Ferris Wheel, probably made in the United States circa 1910-1920, in a genre often referred to as "trampware" or "tramp art".

Tramp Art

Trampware, or tramp art is usually associated with the United States of America during the Great Depression of the 1920s, a period when large numbers of people lost their savings and jobs and became homeless, resorting to extreme measures to survive. However, earlier , but but examples go back at least as far as the turn of the Century. These pieces were produced by homeless people who were often skilled and highly practiced at making complex designs using only scrap material and very very basic tools, sometimes just a pocketknife for carving and whittling.

A typical feature of tramp art is the use of thin pieces of wood, whittled and layered to produce complex geometrical designs and effects, and the technique probably originates with the traditional skills used by woodcarvers in the "Black Forest" region of Germany during the C19th, some of whom may have emigrated to the US and then fallen on hard times. Their skills may have been passed on to others in "tramp towns", places where wandering homeless would congregate for mutual support and safety. Tramp towns tended to appear near railway terminals, and were places with their own rules and etiquette, where people helped the tramp community in return for food and warmth, and where travellers from other towns and cities could meet up and exchange news and information, and skills.

Dating and identification

Because of the nature of tramp art, dating is often very difficult and identifying the maker is usually impossible. In this case, the model is made of plywood, which only appeared circa ~1910, so the piece would seem to date from the second or third decade of the Twentieth Century.


The piece is a large Coney Island fairground ride with two parallel wheels on a spindle supported by two towers, attached to a heavy hollow base containing a large clockwork motor. It would have originally been painted in bright colours, some remnants of which are still visible.


The main structure is made from thin painted plywood set onto a heavy base that houses the clockwork mechanism, and which was obviously made as part of a more expensive piece of furniture before being found and recycled as part of the model. The weight and size of the base box is unusual, and we think it might even have started out as a church donations box before being "liberated".

The wheels and their dangling carriages are made from plywood, with axles made of thick wire. The ends of the wire axles are bent to keep them in place, with one end retaining-section bent sharply and comparatively short, and the other longer and less exactly finished - this suggests that the maker didn't have access to proper wirecutters, and may have relied on a simple cutter built into a pair of pliers, cutting and bending the first end of the wire neatly, then threading it through the model and having to bend and cut the second end more crudely.

The two towers are made of layered stacks of plywood, trampware-style - this would have been a slow and labour-intensive process but perhaps necessary if proper solid pieces of wood weren't available for the towers.

The surprisingly heavy-duty clockwork mechanism seems to be from a clock, with the regulator mechanism disabled or removed so that it runs down much more quickly. This needn't have been a properly working clock, the mechanism from a discarded "broken" timepiece that kept terrible time and was no use for its original purpose would have suited the model just fine.

The model is an odd mixture of elements that suggest that the maker had only the most rudimentary tools, but had a sophisticated level of engineering knowledge – there's thread tightly wound onto the cotton-reel on the driveshaft for extra grip (which was an old Roman engineering technique), and the tops of the towers have cutouts that allow the main shaft and wheel assemblies to be lifted out for servicing and repair, so it seems that the builder was literate in engineering issues and wanted to create something that would work well and last for a reasonably long time. Given the height of the towers and the inclusion of of a motor and multiple moving parts, it's an ambitious piece that if it hadn't worked well might have been unsaleable no matter how much work went into it – the builder seems to have been confident enough to start the work believing that the end-result would be worthwhile.

Given the reliance on a heavy base (which seems to be a found object that doesn't quite fit), and the incorporation of a clock mechanism that might have been a one-off find, it's possible that this may have been a completely one-of-a-kind construction inspired by the materials that the maker had available.