Most people have seen a war souvenir. They take many forms from a postcard mailed from ‘the front,’ to a pillow with a sentimental message for a sweetheart. Today they are sought as collectibles.
Trench Art is a specific subgroup of these war souvenirs. John M. Ford, a photographer with a strong interest in the military, has some eye-candy photographs of trench art on his web site, along with detailed definitions of what professional collectors consider it to be. I paint the trench art category with a broader brush.
WWI soldiers sometimes had free time and little entertainment, so they took to creating and carving. Some soldiers engraved their names or designs on their mess kits. Others created letter openers, rifle shell desk lamps, altar pieces, candle sticks, match box covers, cups, ash trays, umbrella stands, vases, water bottles, book ends, cigarette lighters, “piggy” banks, pitchers and jugs, spittoons, toys, and vehicle models (to name just a few).
The first incidence that I can find of the term, “trench art,” (that is not a typo of ‘French art’) is in an article in the Chicago Tribune of 28 March 1917 on page 15, published prior to the United States entering the war. The article describes an Easter sale by the Band Box and French Wounded Relief selling “quantities of lace and peculiar and unique objects were sent here from France….made by French convalescents, Russians and Belgians mostly….bonbon boxes, cigar boxes and ash trays in a curious sort of gray metal, wrought roughly in fruit and flower designs….” The prices asked “seem a bit high for trench art….however these varied trench objects have been remarked….”
Generally trench art is a term used to describe handcrafted souvenirs, especially by soldiers of the First World War (but not limited to them). It was during and just after WWI that this form of art mostly thrived. It was called trench art because initially much of it was created ‘in the trenches’ by the military during down or quiet time. A few of the soldiers were good enough at it to make a bit of money selling them. Most brought them home as personal souvenirs.
It wasn’t just the military on the front lines who created the art. Recuperating soldiers in hospitals needed something to do, and it was considered therapeutic to keep busy. When people saw that it was a potential source of income, civilians collected detritus, (metal objects, and other debris of wartime) created objects they thought would sell quickly and marketed them.
Though most of the objects were made from metal, trench art included military throwaways such as cigarette boxes, barrels and cloth (anything with military markings). These too were transformed into art. The carvings, sketches and paintings that were created (especially by the soldiers) during this time could also be considered trench art. It’s difficult to set a time-frame or even an era for this type of art, since technically it is still being created.
A woman named Jane A. Kimball from Santa Fe, New Mexico, up until recently had the largest collection of trench art. Her pieces were included in several art shows and exhibitions. She wrote a book about her collection in 2004 and was considered one of the experts in that media until her death in 2016.
I rarely see articles about, or pieces of New Hampshire trench art, and yet I am sure that hundreds of them exist, mostly in attics, trunks and dusty basements. Now that you have an idea of what trench art is, you might want to dust off and treasure that strange old metal vase or ash tray. If you don’t want to use it as a collectable, you might consider donating it to your local historical society or museum.
Photo Example of Trench Art: Royal Alberta Museum, Canada
Story of Trench Art: Smithsonian Air and Space Museum
Beauty From the Battlefield, 10 Pieces of Trench Art: Imperial War Museums
[Editor’s Note: this story is part of an on-going series about heroic New Hampshire men and women of World War I. Look here for the entire listing].