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.
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
They were first sold by Henry Christian Geyer who advertised
them as plaster figures in the "Boston News Letter" of January 25,
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.
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
Chalkware pear bank and squirrel figures.
(Photo, courtesy Garth's Auctions,