Chalkware: Poor-Man's Porcelain
By Karen Parr-Moody
Carnival chalkware was comprised of mold casted figures made out of calcined gypsum, most recently given out as carnival game prizes during the Great Depression through the 1950s. These prizes included such characters as the Donald Duck from the 1930s seen in the photo, right ($35; Booth B-325). These charming items were eventually replaced by stuffed animals. However, chalkware in America dates back to a much early time period.
In 1768, master Boston stonecutter Henry Christian Geyer advertised such busts of famous public figures as well as “animals such as parrots, cats, dogs, lions, sheep, with a number of others too many to enumerate.” This enterprise was a far cry from the elaborate headstones for which Geyer was known. However, he was prompted to such trade by America's burgeoning revolution. The colonies, in response to the Stamp Act of Great Britain, began adopting a Non-Importation Agreement in 1765; it said that they would not import items of trade from Great Britain without the repeal of the Stamp Act. Suddenly, the English could no longer be relied upon for their charming Staffordshire dogs or popular busts of kings and queens, Homer, and Milton. So Geyer branched out with chalkware to satisfy colonists' desires.
Chalkware went on to become an easy and inexpensive proposition for small-time entrepreneurs; it didn't have to be fired in a kiln like pricier ceramics, and decoration could be quickly hand painted rather than glazed. Set-up costs consisted of mere water, plaster, and a few jars of paint.
Some collectors incorrectly believe that the bulk of early chalkware was made by Pennsylvania Germans, perhaps because so many examples survived in the Eastern Pennsylvania region. However, it has been proven that early chalkware was actually made primarily by Italian immigrants living in metro areas such as Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. Chalkware was distributed widely by itinerant salesmen called “image peddlers.” (Some of these merchants would also bring along unpainted pieces, which they would decorate to a housewife’s preference right on her doorstep).
Today chalkware of the late 1700s and through the mid-1800s is appreciated as folk art; in fact, early examples can be seen in the American Museum of Folk Art in New York City.
A thirst for decorative household objects continued into Victorian American, so by the mid-1800s chalkware remained an inexpensive alternative to imported items fashioned from porcelain, earthenware, and other materials. Chalkware of the period has even been reflected in fiction of the time: In Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, published in 1868, Amy March, the artistic of the four sisters featured, speaks of her “most precious plaster rabbit” in the tome.
Chalkware rode another wave of popularity during the '30s, '40s and early '50s. This was the era of chalkware sold and won at carnivals, often called "carnivalware." This is the source of most chalkware one will find in shops such as GasLamp. This rise in appreciation may have in part stemmed from the scarcity of imported ceramics due to World War II. During this time period, chalkware was also purchased for the home as decorative ware, but how much fun it was for youths to win it by playing carnival games.
The figurine in a jaunty beret, left, is an item of carnival chalkware. These were often airbrushed, a process introduced to chalkware in the 1920s, with only the highlights being hand-painted. Carnival-goers’ favorites included such characters as Kewpie Doll, Rin Tin Tin, and Popeye. This particular female figurine dates to the 1930s; her pant suit with its wide flaring legs a giveaway as to the era, with the pants worn in the manner of Marlene Dietrich and Katherine Hepburn. Some collectors will say this figurine is the popular cartoon of the era, Betty Boop, but since it is missing the trademark eyelashes, or any sign of an initial "B," this is hard to ascertain. The glitter trim on her collar and belt is common for the era; glitter began to be applied to chalkware during the 1930s. This type of female figure wearing pants went on to be popular in the 1940s as well, and is often called a "sweater girl" by collectors. However, the transition of such a figure into the 1940s included tight sweaters worn on curvaceous figures, a la Lana Turner.
Often, chalkware prizes were shockingly offensive by today's standards; ethnic stereotypes were common examples. The Chinese lord bust in the photo, right, is a toned-down version from this genre ($15; S-104). This specific bust, in traditional dress, was a common chalkware figure of the 1950s; he actually has a lady friend who is his running mate. It is possible they were meant to be used as book ends. This piece also shows an interesting side to the individuality of each chalkware painter; the painting on this particular mold can vary widely, and might include such details as a mustache or swirled decoration on the jacket. That is part of the beauty of chalkware; even though it was mass produced, being hand painted, no two pieces were exactly alike. This fellow is the very picture of mid-century charm.
Some chalkware figurines were related to religious figures and other forms, and included Madonnas, saints, kneeling children, Saint Nicholas, and nativity scenes. The charming pair of Jesus and Virgin Mary wall-hanging busts, left, is more subtle in its painting execution than many forms of mid-century chalkware, with uniform coloring and no trace of glitter ($135; Booth B-225). While much of the era's chalkware would have been painted in a slapdash manner, these two are well done and have held up well over the years. What a game prize these would have made for some pious bobby soxer.
From the late 18th century to the 20th century, chalkware went from being an homage to serious art to being the somewhat jocular representation of popular characters, glitter and all.
Due to its delicate medium, chalkware was always difficult to transport and was easily damaged. Since these figures chipped and broke easily, it can be hard to find a piece today that has stood the test of time. But when one does make such a find, the bright color, naive form, and cheery nature of a good piece of chalkware is sure to bring vintage cheer to any room.