I’ve become obsessed with buying trench art on eBay. I discovered the sub-art of trench art when searching for a bulk lot of stamps or something less exciting. After spending $100 on trench art, I ultimately decided to also spend $8 buying a book on trench art (Trench Art: Materialities and Memories of Wary by Nicholas J. Saunders – 2003). There aren’t many books on trench art and this one covers WWI almost exclusively. There is another book, Trench Art: An Illustrated History by Jane A. Kimball (2005), available at Amazon.com. The public and school libraries don’t have it, either.
What I’ve learned about trench art so far is that most of it was not, in fact, made in the trenches. A lot of it was made at safe locations outside the trenches. Of course, items COULD have been made in the trenches, but there is no real way to confirm this. A lot of trench art was made in hospitals as a way to encourage soldiers to recover. Also, a lot of trench art was made as a past time and a way to make money (by selling it to other soldiers by skilled craftsmen). It was rather a commerical effort for some, but also an effort to take something home for others or to pass the time. Most of it is not signed by an artist because it was technically illegal to steal shell casings (they were supposed to be sent back home and recycled). The most common type of trench art is the decorated artillery shell, which I am less interested in. The best examples are from Yser where lots of Belgian metalworkers were fighting. They had the skills to create elaborate designs, like extruding the shell to create a lion’s face, etc. The less skilled examples are mere engravings on the shells. After the war, civilians in the war torn areas created lots of trench art as a way to make money and recover after the war. These are usually marked with 1914-1919 or say The Great War. These were sold to soldiers or to pilgrims, widows, etc. I believe that most corseted styles (where the bottom of the shell is twisted to make a better vase) are from the post-war era, although I’m not sure about this.
Of course, there were no trenches in WWII and there seemed to be an increase in manufactured items being sold to the soldiers who then bought them and sent them back to their loved ones, rather than making them. However, I’m not sure about this because I don’t have Jane Kimballs book. Grr.
Anyway, I like trench art because it feeds into my interest in the military, war, bullet casings, art, strange religious objects, and offbeat jewelry. The first item I bought was a pin and earring set:
I was totally conned by the soldier’s photo on the back. It looks manufactured. The auction threw in the pair of earrings, which look similar in tone to the pin. They didn’t know if they came with the pin as a set. There is an engraving on the back that says 10K R.G.P. Google indicates that this stands for 10 Carat rolled gold palladium. My sister and I are suspicious since this looks so dark in color.
This ring, from Korea, seems to be a common style (I’ve seen others on eBay with a similar design). It makes me wonder if they were manufactured – but this one is the same tone of metal as the shell casings so I’m not sure. There isn’t any kind of special mark inside of it:
This is definitely the best deal I got out of all the auctions. It was a $1!! Trench art just doesn’t seem all that popular. I’ve been trying to find Iraq trench art, but without any luck. It does seem like trench art tapered off with time, although my father remembers seeing so many ash trays made from bullet shells during Vietnam that he never even bothered to acquire one. That is one thing to think about on eBay, whether bullet shell ash trays are really from the World War I or World War II or from Vietnam.
The auction said this was found with another bracelet that was dated 1946. It looks like a lot of the other World War II bracelets I’ve seen on eBay on online. I like it because it is well made. A lot of these are obviously hand done with varying skill levels and the workmanship on this one is nice. On the inside “Myrna” is engraved.
The item below is probably my favorite and also the most expensive. I love breweriana or drinking related items, probably because my father has a large beer glass collection spanning decades and continents. I haven’t really seen anything like this. My father thinks it was a WWII Navy trench art item, maybe from the Pacific. It is heavy and well made and preserved:
I’ve always loved religious artifacts so I couldn’t resist this. The auction listed it as WWII trench art, but I believe it is probably WWI from the post-WWI period (1919-1939). Saunders’ book says that these talismanic trench art pieces were common during WWI during and after the war. The elevated crucifix placed on a tripod of three shells is a common style in the post-war period. Usually there is a plaque to indicate where in Europe this was made, but this one doesn’t have one and there are no marks to indicate it ever had one.