Variety of figures draw many collectors

What comes to mind when you think of chalkware figurines? Probably the cheap and brightly painted figures that were offered at early 20th century carnivals as prizes. However many types were made by the thousands in 19th century America. The few that have survived get top dollar at auction. One example sold several years ago at a Cowan’s auction for $2,301.00.

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 January 25, 1770. By the mid-19th century chalkware was sold in America from Italian immigrant peddler’s packs in cities. When unpainted it resembled chalk. Actually the hollow figures were made in a mold of gypsum with the main ingredient 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.

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,” lessening the value. However, restoration by professionals is acceptable.

The rarest are nodding-head figures. However 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. Modestly priced now they are being seriously collected.

Do you have an antique or collectible item and need more information?  For a personnel reply send a photo, along with history, size and any signature, with a self-addressed, stamped envelope and $25 to Anne Gilbert, 1811 Renaissance Commons Boulevard, #2-319, Boynton Beach, FL. 33426.