Small decorative figurines molded or sculpted from plaster of Paris made with gypsum are known as chalkware; this art form is thought to have originated in Europe, most likely in Italy. These figures were very popular as a less expensive alternative to ceramic pieces in the 1800s and early 1900s, but they were very light and delicate. A two-piece mold was used to make the majority of the figures. They were often painted in realistic colors and depicted a wide range of subjects, such as animals and flowers. Collectors prize older chalkware pieces in good condition, but they’re hard to come due to the fragile nature of the figurines and the paint’s proclivity to chip.
Decorative objects for the home gained popularity in the 1800s and early 1900s, but many were made of ceramic and were out of reach for the average person. Because it was made of less expensive gypsum plaster and was easier and faster to make than ceramic, chalkware was a much more affordable alternative. The first pieces of chalkware are thought to have been created in Italy, where religious figurines of icons like the Virgin Mary and Jesus, as well as other biblical subjects, were extremely popular. Chalkware’s popularity grew quickly due to its low cost, despite the fact that it was more fragile than ceramic.
Molds were used to make the majority of early chalkware figures, a technique that is still used today. Typically, a two-piece mold is used, with the front and back halves of the figure being created separately and then cemented together. After that, the finished piece is painted in a realistic color scheme. Many different types of paint can be used; in the past, watercolor and oil paints were popular, but tempera and acrylic paints have become more popular in recent years. It is also possible to buy unpainted pieces that people can paint themselves in today’s world.
Chalkware figurines depicted a wide range of subjects and were inexpensive and plentiful; they were even common carnival prizes for a time. Animals, birds, and flowers were popular for a long time, but buildings, fruit, and cartoon-like figures also became popular. Many of the figures depicted popular images of the time; for example, during the popularity of Kewpie dolls in the early 1900s, many Kewpie figurines were made.
It’s difficult to find older pieces of chalkware in good condition. The figures were brittle and prone to chipping, cracking, and breaking. Because of the porous nature of the plaster, the colorful paint would often chip off, and attempts to touch it up would only make it look worse. Collectors value complete figures with intact paint, and it is recommended that they be handled with care to avoid damage. Depending on the subject matter, pieces with minor damage can also be valuable.