Chalkware figurines come in many forms and prices


by Anne Gilbert

What comes to mind when you think of chalkware figurines? Probably the  cheap and brightly painted figures that were offered as prizes at early 20th century carnivals. However, many types were made by the thousands in 19th century America, and the few that have survived get top dollar at auction. One example sold several years ago at a Cowan's Auction for $2,301.

Carnival chalkware, 1940 Native American chief (photo courtesy I Collector)

In the 19th century, middle-class Americans collected them as an alternative to the more expense English Staffordshire figurines. Now they are considered a form of folk art.

Historically they were first sold in America by Henry Christian Geyer who advertised them as plaster figures in the Boston Newsletter of Jan. 25, 1770. By the mid-19th century chalkware was sold in America from Italian immigrant peddler's packs in cities. When unpainted, the figurine resembled chalk. Actually, the hollow figures were made in a mold of gypsum with the main ingredient being 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 an oiled mold. Rapid stirring quickly hardened it. The cured halves were cemented together, and the rough edges smoothed. It was then painted in gaudy colors. Since they were hand painted no two were exactly alike. Many were made and sold around Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.

19th century chalkware dog bank (photo courtesy Cowans Auctions, Pennsylvania)

CLUES: Unfortunately, reproductions abound. They are heavier than the old pieces. While authentic pieces may still have some of their original bright colors, often they have been  'touched up ", diminishing the value. However, restoration by professionals is acceptable.

The rarest are nodding-head figures, but be careful because reproductions are being made in Europe.

Most common are the non-moving figures of animals, fruit and flowers. Often niches were made so the owner could display a favorite religious figure. Religious figures of angels, saints and cherubs were predominately made by Italians.

Though hundreds of chalkware watch stands were made to display 19th century pocket watches they are now rare. They were left undecorated since they were meant to stand against a wall.
If you discover a brightly colored chalkware figure covered with glitter it was made in the 1930s and beyond. Now modestly priced, they are being seriously collected nevertheless. 

Anne Gilbert has been self-syndicating the ANTIQUE DETECTIVE to such papers as the Chicago Sun Times and the Miami Herald since 1983. She has authored nine books on antiques, collectibles and art and appeared on national TV. She has done appraisals for museums and private individuals.