Penguins and Other Animal Folk Art March to Collectors

Folk art can take many forms and be made of just about any material. However, it is the wood carved animals and birds made in America in the 19th century that rate the big bucks and collector respect.

The majority of American folk art carvers are unknown. Not so Charles Hart, known as the "penguin carver." Long before the movie, March Of The Penguins focused on these remarkable creatures, collectors had discovered the folk art penguins carved by Charles Hart. Hard to believe, Hart once sold his penguin carvings on the road between Essex and Gloucestor, Mass. Inspired by Admiral E. Byrd's Polar Expedition in the 1930s, he carved them in many sizes. These days, when any of his penguins turn up, prices range from the high hundreds to thousands.

Well known to collectors is 19th century folk art carver Wilhelm Schimmel from Pennsylvania. Many carved wood eagles and animals have been attributed to him. The wood carvings are of several types: whittled, carved, turned or scratch-carved. Schimmel used a cross-hatched pattern, and polychromed paint finished them off. The most popular subjects were the barnyard animals and roosters.

Not all animal and bird figures were of wood. Many were made of whatever materials were at hand. This included metal and gypsum. Even dippers made of gourds added eye appeal when the handles were carved in the shape of barnyard animals. No matter how humble the purpose, untrained American artisans added humor and beauty to the most humble objects. Everything from tools and kitchen utensils to gravestones and architectural ornaments used animals and other creatures as motifs.

This type of work, brought to America by German settlers who moved to Pennsylvania, came to be known as Pennsylvania Dutch. However, farmers who lived in other sections of the country, "prettied up" kitchen items for their wives. Small kitchen shelves and comb cases that were meant to hang on the kitchen wall were decorated with animal carvings. Even kraut cutters and knife boxes were topped with animal and bird motifs.

The woods used depended on the region. When the pieces weren't carved from a single piece of wood, the woods were mixed. For instance, maple and holly, ebony and oak creatures were inlaid.

Sailors at sea used whale ivory to carve what we call scrimshaw. It, too, is a form of folk art. Even beef and pork bones from their diet of salt beef and pork were turned into carvings.

Some of the most expensive kitchen gadgets these days are pie crimpers and "jaggers", costing hundreds of dollars. Handles showed the artistry in their depiction of animal and other figures.

Whether the mid-19th century animal forms of metal are a folk art spin-off or another form is up for debate. After the 1850s when new casting techniques were developed, animals and other decorative forms were cast into nutcrackers, hitching-post finials and doorstops. Even the boot-scraper became a work of art when it was made in the shape of a cat or dog.

Still around, and not true antiques, are dog-shaped lawn ornaments. Popular from the 1920s to the '40s, they were painted and made of both metal and pine.

CLUES: Reproductions and outright fakes abound in this collecting field. Folk art carving from other countries is often passed off as American. Other items are brand new with faked aging. Know your dealer. Or, expect the unexpected. Not everybody appreciates the look of folk art.

Set of Emperor penguins made by Charles Hart. (Courtesy, Austin T. Miller, American Antiques,
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