Cowan's Corner

Nineteenth Century Chalkware 

By Wes Cowan

The origin of American chalkware is generally attributed to the Pennsylvania Dutch, first appearing in the mid 1800's as a low-cost decorative alternative to the more expensive English Staffordshire figures. These were often sold door to door by peddlers as late as 1900 until decorative objects made with more modern materials and manufacturing methods replaced them around the turn of the century.

Objects of molded plaster continued to be made as carnival prizes until the mid-twentieth century, at which time they were replaced by items like stuffed animals. Many forms of "carnival chalk" were of a different subject matter and style, like kewpie dolls and ethnic figures that were often politically incorrect by today's standards. Molded and painted plaster sculpture are produced to this day, although items recently manufactured are sold as fakes to deceive collectors or as contemporary "antique" craft items.

The term "chalkware" is a misnomer because the material used is not actually chalk. The earliest examples are gypsum, the primary ingredient in plaster of paris. They were of hollow, thin wall construction, generally molded in two halves that were cemented together; paint-decorated in watercolor, occasionally in oils. Since chalkware is molded, many pieces have identical size and form and were able to retain their uniqueness through individual decorations. Early examples tend to be gaudy and not naturalistically represented. It would not be uncommon to find apples painted blue or another inappropriate color. Later examples were painted in tempera paints and typically are of solid rather than hollow construction.

Forms most commonly found in chalkware are dogs and cats, particularly spaniels and poodles, followed by animals such as squirrels, roosters, doves and parrots. More uncommon forms include lambs, sheep, swans, deer, lions and pigs. Holiday items and animals with nodding heads are particularly rare. Fruit and floral mantle garnitures and holiday items are the highest demand. The watch hutches, unique to nineteenth century life, were configured similar to a garden shrine. They had a round opening near the top for hanging a pocket watch to be visible from the front functioning as a mantle clock. Another scarce figural item is a building with openings for the windows where a candle could be placed, providing illumination from behind. These were the forerunners of the plastic buildings illuminated by tiny light bulbs sold today.

Nineteenth century chalkware exemplifies the definition of "folk" art in its purest sense. Its manufacture required skill but no formal training. It represents everyday familiar objects and satisfies a desire for color and beauty through a simple medium. Chalkware truly was art made by the common folk for their own enjoyment.

About the author: Kentucky native Wes Cowan is founder and owner of Cowan's Auctions, Inc. in Cincinnati, Ohio. An internationally recognized expert in historic Americana, Wes stars in the PBS television series History Detectives and is a featured appraiser on Antiques Roadshow. He can be reached via email at Article research by Mike Argenbright.

Learn about Collectibles


This squirrel eating a nut sold
for $517.50 in 2006.

A fine example of hollow-molding and thin mold construction, this spaniel similar to a Staffordshire figure is
valued at $800-$1,200.

This lamb in bronze with painted finish sold for $575 in February.





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