Lancaster County Chalkware

What is it?

Chalkware are fine-crafted, light-weight figurines that have traditionally been very popular in Lancaster County. Despite the name, these collectibles are not made of chalk but from plaster-of-Paris. The name likely derives from the resemblance that the material and the texture has to chalk.

These pieces of art are molded and designed into various figures such as animals, flowers, fruits, buildings and people. On a whole, the articles are very fragile and need to be handled with extreme care. The finished products are rarely over 6-9 inches tall and are painted in realistic color designs.

The pieces are painted in a variety of methods. Traditionally, water color was most popular. Oil paint was also used at times such as with molds of fruit. Present day practitioners of this Pennsylvania Dutch folk art generally use tempera.

Chalkware Began as a Form of Religious and Devotional Art in Italy

Like most of Lancaster County folk art, the history of chalkware starts in Europe. It is believed that this art originated in Italy, where colorful molds of the Madonna and other biblical figures and scenes were popular and common. The practice of the craft spread to Germany and then to the New World.

Although the Pennsylvania Dutch are primarily Protestant, this art, which had a highly religious, Catholic origin, was a hit with the local people. There is one major difference between the Pennsylvania practice of this folk art and that of Europe. At no time in Pennsylvania has this art been put to religious or devotional use.

How It's Made

The early examples of chalkware were created by casting the plaster in a front mold and a back one. The two halves were then cemented together. Nowadays, the artists often use more than a dozen individual molds which are then pieced together. One can judge the quality of a piece by the amount of detail that the artist placed in the mold as well as the paint design.

Consisting of molds cemented together, the finished product is hollow in the center. The overall lightness of the pieces had the unfortunate consequence that a slight impact might cause the object to lose its balance. To remedy this, the artists began weighing down the bottom with additional plaster.

The Most Common Types of Figurines

The most common pieces are representations of birds, dogs, cats, squirrels, and deer. The animals are molded in a variety of positions. Most common might be where the animal is represented in a recumbent, resting position with one leg extended, as though about to rise.

Birds are often shown mounted on pedestals. Oftentimes, love birds are depicted with bodies and beaks joined together.

The animals are painted realistically and in detail. Cats are depicted with delicately painted whiskers; deer are shown with fine, little spots on the fur; and touches of color are realistically used to accentuate the ears, eyes, and nostrils of any given animal.

Flower and fruit pieces are also very common. Representations such as that of oranges, apples, pineapples, and pears are usually depicted in a plaster bowl. Unlike with the animal objects, the fruit objects are sometimes painted fantastically as well as realistically. For instance, it is not unusual, to see purple pineapples or blue bananas.

Buildings are also depicted by this art form. Cathedrals or church fronts are highly desired by collectors. Windows are sometimes shown by adding touches of glaze; sometimes they are represented as openings in the plaster.

Some Common Problems with Chalkware

One of the problems with chalkware is that over time there is a tendency of the plaster as well as the paint to flake off. This is to be expected considering the delicate nature of the material. Furthermore, with the passage of time, the material tends to darken causing the color of the ornament to change into a hue and tone not originally intended.

Collectors are usually warned not to clean soiled pieces because this would cause more flaking and loss of color. Collectors also should not try to touch up pieces whose color has faded or whose paint has chipped. Doing so would only decrease the value of their collectible.

The material of the figurine is very porous and unpredictable. Adding a touch of color here and there often has the unfortunate consequences of the color spreading to undesired areas and the nearby paint tending to loosen as well.

Difficulties in Judging the Age and Authenticity of Chalkware

A major problem for the serious chalkware collector is the difficulty in distinguishing the most valuable antique pieces from modern imitations. To do so, one would have to examine the paint in detail as well as the plaster. Because the pieces are so extremely delicate and ephemeral, any thorough examination runs the high risk of damaging and even destroying the piece.

Moreover, because so few antique pieces have survived in perfect condition, the collector must be satisfied with pieces with broken parts, chipped and flaking paint, and dark dirt smudges. Therefore, some of the most potentially valuable pieces are in the most shabby condition. A condition that one may not feel comfortable displaying for public viewing.

However, even though the modern pieces may not be as valuable as the antiques, the causal collector can take much pleasure and joy in the delicate beauty of these little figurines that can be found in Lancaster County.

If you would like to learn about other examples of Pennsylvania Dutch Folk Art created by local Lancaster, PA artists, please see:

Amish QuiltsBasketryButter MoldsFraktur
Hex SignsRedwareSgraffitoSpatterware

If you're interested in learning more about Lancaster County's unique folk art during your visit, why not check out some of the best Pennsylvania Dutch folk art museums where you and your family can experience firsthand this rich and complex and relatively unknown artistic culture.

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