100 Years Ago: New Hampshire’s WWI Trench Art

Trench art man made from a bullet. WWI. Purchased from the estate of a retired Coral Gables police officer, and former patrol agent. Now in the possession of this blog’s editor.

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).

Close up of detail on Belgian Trench Art Vase.  First owned by Virginia (Dierckx) Pynenburg
Staargaard and given to her granddaughter Virginia Penrod of New Hampshire. Photograph V. Penrod, used with permission.

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.

Trench Art tobacco can made from WWI shell. It belonged to New Hampshire native Capt. Nathaniel R. Mason, made for him by Robert W. Arther. Photograph property of his granddaughter, Ellen McGrath, used here with permission.

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].

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14 Responses to 100 Years Ago: New Hampshire’s WWI Trench Art

  1. Pingback: New Hampshire World War I Military: Heroes of The Great War | Cow Hampshire

  2. Fascinating! Reminds me a little of “hobo art.”

  3. Amy says:

    I’d never heard the term or knew about trench art before. Love learning something new! Thanks!

  4. Michael says:

    Next time I’m in an antique or thrift store, I’ll have to keep this in mind. You never know what the provenance of an item may be.

    • Janice Brown says:

      Michael, agreed the provenance is important. Where something comes from, who had it, what documentation it has, all tells its story and increases its value if you can prove it is not a “knock off.”

  5. Ellen McGrath says:

    Thanks Janice for another wonderful article featuring my grandfather, Nathaniel Robert Mason!

    • Janice Brown says:

      Ellen, it was fun to write a story about a little known topic, and you were very gracious to allow me to use the photograph of your grandfather’s trench art.

  6. Pingback: New Hampshire WWI Military: Captain Nathaniel Robert Mason of North Conway | Cow Hampshire

  7. Virginia Penrod says:

    Once again, Jan, you tickle the memories and stir the heart with the desire to know the stories of our long gone Kindred. Thanks so very much.

  8. Gail Mpintos says:

    Hi Jan…I recently found this wonderful blog while researching WW1 at home. My friends and I will be at Strawberry Banke on July 1. Our focus is on WW1 knitting and all the ways food, fuel and other resources were conserved for the war effort. I know the ladies of New Hampshire were very patriotic and dedicated to the cause. I am trying to find a popular recipe or two to feature in our literature and would like to use a recipe that New Hampshire ladies would have cooked for their families. Any help you can give me is greatly appreciated!

  9. Such a fascinating topic! While researching for our WWI exhibit, I came across so many beautiful examples of trench art. I also saw images with piles of empty shells stacked taller than trees. Thanks for sharing your research and insights.

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