The Hidden Value of Early Chalkware

The Hidden Value of Early Chalkware

Many of us have wandered through lower-end antique stores and spotted those warn, mid-century chalkware figurines. We all know the type: scantily clad hula girls, donkeys pulling two-wheeled carts, anthropomorphic fruit, and pirate wall plaques. Usually priced under $25, there is very little demand for any of it – and for good reason.

Yet, the history of chalkware is actually quite complex, covering three distinct periods and styles of manufacture. In fact, most people are not aware that some of the earliest examples are rare and quite valuable. But the differences are distinct – and very often misidentified.

Soft chalkware, heavy and easily chipped, is made from molded plaster. It was first produced during the mid to late 1800s by German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania. Their idea was to make an affordable alternative to the more expensive Staffordshire porcelain, which had to be imported from England. Thus, the earliest chalkware pieces mimic iconic Staffordshire figures, such as seated spaniels, strolling Victorian couples, and reclining deer. Today, these rare Pennsylvania Dutch artifacts are recognized as desirable hand-painted folk art and can exceed original Staffordshire in value.

Pennsylvania chalkware spaniel 19th 255 6016913f16a00fc3cb25574e09206b7a
19th-century Pennsylvania chalkware was designed to mimic the more expensive Staffordshire porcelain imported from England.
This spaniel sold for $793 in January 2018.

The second wave of chalkware was produced from the early 1920s to the mid-1940s, specifically for carnival prizes. These figures were produced in high quantities, as cheaply and gaudily as possible, so there can be no comparison to the quality of the Pennsylvania Dutch originals. They reflected popular culture and represented radio, movie, cartoon, and comic book characters. Most can be found for under $50.

However, this era of chalkware can also have value. Some of the pieces from the 1920s were signed and dated, making them very desirable. The earliest were also hand-painted, although the vast majorities were hurriedly airbrushed with stencils, causing their appearance to be common and repetitive. The prizes with the most attention to detail, the widest variety of colors, and the addition of other materials (such as glass eyes) have the best value. Some of the scarcer pieces (like those with World War II themes) can also bring higher prices.

Vintage walt disneys 15 tall snow 1 4bfa2f040ac036c6e970f56463652a79
Disney characters were very common carnival prizes in the 1940s.
This 15″ Snow White sold for $20 in September 2020.
1940s vintage superman carnival 1 9b3d2984e757180804ae8a3cb73ac720
The detail on this airbrushed statuette of Superman is unusual,
with multiple colors, an embossed S on the chest, and added glitter.
It sold for $200 in February 2020.

The third wave of chalkware was popular for décor in the 1950s and 1960s, and it is mostly what you will find in second-hand stores today. Kitschy tourist souvenirs, decorative figurines, table lamps, wall pockets, bookends, ashtrays, and the like have nominal value now.

During this era, there was a media fascination with exotic locales, so romanticized, stereotyped (and sometimes insensitive) images of Asian, African, and European ethnicities were common themes for plaster wall hangings. One company, in particular, the British W.H. Bossons Company, produced millions of high-quality wall sculptures during this time and even continued production into the 1990s. In later years, characters from famous literature or those representing professions (like sea captains and fisherwomen) replaced the costumed Bedouins and geishas. Most of these items have fallen out of favor today, but some of the earliest examples are still sought by collectors.

Vintage 1964 chalkware bill sikes 1 d72fe41adf6bbb0edb52bb73eca345c5
This Bossons Company wall sculpture is of Dickens’ Oliver Twist character Bill Sikes. It sold for $18 in October 2020.

If you have a yen for collecting vintage chalkware, here are a couple of tips:

1. Be cautious when identifying and purchasing the earliest Pennsylvania Dutch pieces. They are reproduced and should be authenticated by an expert.

2. Never put water or liquid cleaners on chalkware. It will crumble apart if soaked. Wipe it off with a soft cloth or brush. If it is too soiled or stained, pass on the purchase.

3. Minor dings are expected, so the figure doesn’t have to be perfect. However, a bad repair (like filling in a chip with a mismatched magic marker) reduces value.

4. Older is always better. Look for quality workmanship with attention to detail, pieces that are signed and dated, hand painting, and the addition of adornments.

Liz Holderman is a Worthologist and accredited appraiser who specializes in books and collectibles.
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