Chalkware Figures Gain Respect and Higher Prices

By Anne Gilbert 

Humble chalkware objects considered a form of folk art, once sold from peddler's packs, are still modestly priced at $200 or more when they come to auction. However, the more unique and rare the form, the prices can be over a thousand dollars. Don't confuse them with the carnival chalkware figures made from 1900 to the 1920s. These have a pinkish cast. Those made in the 1930s were trimmed with glitter and turn up at garage sales and flea markets.

Although chalkware was first made in America as early as 1768, it has come to be associated with Italian immigrants who peddled it in American cities in the mid-19th century. When unpainted, the surface resembled chalk. The hollow figures were made in a mold of gypsum, the main ingredient in plaster of paris. Because of their light weight, early pieces were weighted. The figures were cast in a two-piece mold by pouring the "batter" into the oiled mold. Rapid stirring quickly hardened it. The cured halves were cemented together and the rough edges smoothed before it was painted.

Thousands of figures were made for 19th century middle-class Americans because of its resemblance to the more expensive English Staffordshire figures. Even though they were mass produced, they were hand painted, and no two were exactly alike. Early pieces were painted with oil and sized (protecting the surface and smoothing before painting with a fabric or gelatinous glaze). Later pieces were not sized before being painted with watercolors. They weren't glazed or fired. Originally, the colors of gaudy reds, yellows, etc. had mellowed. Many were made and sold around Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.

They were first sold by Henry Christian Geyer who advertised them as plaster figures in the "Boston News Letter" of January 25, 1770.

CLUES: Turn the piece upside down and examine the inside of the hollow body. Look for evidence of glue. Reproductions are heavier than the old pieces. While authentic pieces still may have their original bright colors, often they have been "touched up". That lessens the value. Restoration by professionals is acceptable. Nodding-head figures are the rarest. However, there are reproductions from Europe. If they have been repaired and have restored mechanisms, that lowers the value. Rarest is a nodding woman's figure.

Most common are non-moving chalkware figures of animals, fruit and flowers. The religious figures of angels, saints and cherubs were predominantly made by Italians. Often, niches were made so that the owner could display a favorite religious figure. Collectors would consider a creche with figures of the Christ child, Mary, Joseph and animals a real discovery. Though hundreds of chalkware watchstands were made to display pocket watches, they are now rarities. They were left undecorated on the back since they were meant to stand against a wall. 

Chalkware pear bank and squirrel figures.
(Photo, courtesy Garth's Auctions, Delaware, Ohio.)

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