There was a time when local fairs and traveling carnivals weren’t filled to the gills with stuffed animals made to look like your favorite cartoon characters. A time when you wouldn’t have to walk around with a giant teddy bear, wondering where to put it when it was time to ride The Avalanche, or how to eat a giant mustard-covered corn dog without getting it all over your new buddy.
Instead, there was chalkware.
What’s chalkware? you might ask. Is it like silverware? Is it forks and knives that look like they’ll break if I bite too hard, and will, with 100% certainty, leave behind a weird, dusty residue in my mouth?
What a silly question that is, and definitely not at all what I originally thought chalkware was myself, I assure you.
The chalkware craze began in Staffordshire, England in the late 1800s as an inexpensive alternative to the region’s popular porcelain figurines. The chalkware one might win at an early-20th century carnival frequently came in the form of hand-painted figurines like kewpie dolls, or pieces based on TV and film characters.
By mid-century, you could find all sorts of items in chalkware. Plaques, lamps, religious memorabilia—all popular for their aesthetic qualities as well as their reasonable price.
But less expensive materials have their drawbacks. Chalkware is, essentially, Plaster of Paris—inexpensive, lightweight, and ultimately very, very fragile.
And that makes things a little more difficult for the collectors that covet them now, because they do not stand the test of time. The figures were hand-painted with oil-based or watercolor paints, but not glazed like their porcelain counterparts, which means their colors fade or chip easily, and the plaster has little to protect it from the elements.
Even if they are stored cautiously, they can chip or collect dust. And because Plaster of Paris is susceptible to water, even cleaning can be a bit of an issue.
Which makes the hunt that much more thrilling, I suppose. Chalkware itself is easy to find. But to find it in good condition is not as common.
With such a variety of chalkware out in the world, though, you’re liable to find something that interests you. Let’s take a look at just a few popular chalkware items.
For 50 years, a company named Bosson
made a variety of pottery pieces, including figurines and lamp bases, but most famously their collection of chalkware wall masks. Whether they’re your style or not, it’s difficult to deny the impression a large collection could make when hanging on one’s walls. The company went out of business in 1996, but their faces can still be found at estate sales. Watching, watching...
The mid-century was a popular time for chalkware wall-hangings, particularly those with an aquatic motif. Collectors can’t resist a well-kept chalkware mermaid or, better yet a fish.
Chalkware fish were produced by a number of companies, but the most prolific is Miller Studios. Their vintage wall hangings are popular with collectors, and come in a variety of styles and colors, sure to suit even the most discerning shoppers’ needs.
Do you need a black and white fish to complement your monochrome bathroom? No problem. What about a fish with its head turned coquettishly to the side while wearing a top hat? Sure. Maybe you’re more of a seahorse kind of guy. There’s a wall-hanging for you. If you’re willing to hunt, you’re sure to find it.
If you’re looking for an interesting conversation starter, look no further than a chalkware lamp. Popular in the mid-century, before being replaced by ceramic, chalkware lamp bases (and statuettes) frequently came in sets of two (often a male and female figural set—dancers were a popular choice), or more abstract designs.
Identifying chalkware from other materials is a relatively easy task, as is separating the vintage from the modern. It just takes a little sleuthing.
Check the paint. Chalkware is not glazed—it will often have a matte finish not unlike, well, chalk. And the paint, more than likely, will have chips. As we said before, without the protection of the glaze, and because of the nature of plaster, there is little to stop the paint from coming off. More contemporary pieces may be painted with tempera paint, but the more vintage items were hand-painted with watercolors or oil-based paints.
Because of their fragility, you may choose to overlook some chips. But you might be less interested in pieces that have been touched-up, which tends to be pretty easy to spot, especially if the pieces haven’t been painted over entirely. (There are people who beautifully and successfully restore chalkware lamps. It is a process that involves heavy spackle, a lot of sanding, and even more artistic talent.)
Check the bottom/back. Antique chalkware is unlikely to be marked.
Feel it. When it comes to pieces other than wall mounts, chalkware tends to be bottom-heavy—contemporary pieces more so than vintage—and hollow.
Though it is susceptible to water, chalkware can certainly be cleaned, albeit delicately. Even if the plaster has been sealed, it’s best to treat the item with care. Focus first on dry methods to remove dust, first with a cloth, and then if you’ve got caked-on dirt, you can use a soft-bristled brush to get into the nooks and crannies. A cotton swab could also do the job. If the chalkware is too delicate for even this level of cleaning, stop immediately if you notice plaster or paint peeling off.
Once you’ve thoroughly dusted the chalkware, if more cleaning is required, you can take a cloth or a cotton swab and just barely dampen it—barely—and then use it to gently clean off any remaining grime. If the paint or plaster appears to come off, stop immediately.
It’s fragile and often flaky, but the draw of chalkware is mostly in its kitsch factor. To line a shelf with antique kewpie dolls, or fill a kitchen wall with plaques of anthropomorphized fruits and vegetables is an appealing prospect to some. If you’re one of them—get thee to an estate sale.