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American Chalkware or Plaster-of-Paris Figures
CHALKWARE IS A misnomer for figures made of plaster of Paris. These naive figures of animals, fruit, men, and women were made and sold throughout the country in the 18th and 19th centuries. More have been found in the Pennsylvania Dutch country than anywhere else and for that reason for some vears all chalkware was considered Pennsylvania Dutch. However, history shows that chalkware figures were made in several parts of the country as well as imported from England. Such figures were also made in Italy, Germany, France, and elsewhere. Plaster of Paris was introduced by Ralph Daniel in 1745 and this led to casting from slip, in plasterof-Parislmolds. The figures of English stucco duro ceilings were made in this manner by Italian workmen in England, and the same workmen probably made the plaster-of-Paris figures imported into this country and advertised in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia newspapers in the 1760s. In the New York Gazette and Weekly Mercury, October 3, 1768, James Strachan, carver and gilder, from London, and David Davidson, who were in the looking-glass business in New York, advertised: "He has also imported some elegant plaister busts." On February 2, 1769, Bernard & Jugiez, Carvers & Gilders in Philadelphia advertised in the South Carolina Gazette & Country Journal: "Have imported from London looking glasses, figures of plaister-of-Paris, brackets, etc." In the New York journal or General Advertiser June 1, 1769, Nicholas Bernard, Carver, "Has for sale . . . Figures of Plaster-of-Paris." The first notice of any plaster-of-Paris figures made in this country appears in the notice of Henry Christian Geyer, stonecutter, of Boston, in January 25, 1770, in the Boston News Letter. He advertises "image making or Fuser Simulacrum, Kings and Queens, King George, Queen Charlotte, King and Queen of Sweden, King and Queen of Prussia, King and Queen of Denmark-Busts, Mathew Prior, Homer, Milton-Animals, Parrots, cats, dogs, lions, sheep. All made of-Plaster-of Paris of this Country produce. Country shop keepers supplied." The fact that Geyer was German and used German words in describing his products indicates that he sold to the German trade and may well have sent them to the Pennsylvania Dutch country.
Later, in the early part of the 19th century, peddlers carried trays of plaster-of-Paris figures around the country and sold them on the streets of large cities. As early as 1808 a small book illustrated with quaint engravings, Cries of New York, includes the image peddler and his cry: "Images. very fine, very pretty." The text explains that images or representations of animals were made of plaster of Paris, a "kind of stone from Nova Scotia." As late as the mid 1850s there is an illustration in Godey's Ladys Book of a peddler with a tray of images and animals. These figures continued in popularity into the 1880s and those found and collected today are, except for a few of them, the products of the last half of the 19th century.
Plaster-of-Paris figures were made in half molds and the two parts cemented together, leaving a hollow center. Some large pieces were cast in a single piece and weighted. In Select Collection of Valuable and Curiolis Arts and Interesting Experiments by Rufus Porter, which was published in 1826, directions are given for casting images in plaster. Sulphate of lime and water the consistency of putty was used. The model, image or fruit, was brushed with olive oil, then covered with plaster 2 inches thick; when drv it was cut in two, the casts were oiled on the inside and bound together with string or tape, and into this two-piece mold the wet plaster to form the image was poured. In Art Recreations, published by J. E. Tilton in 1860, similar directions were given for making molds for fruit, lambs, sheep, dogs, and figures. Plaster-of-Paris images may have been made in molds of metal, but I find no mention of any but plaster molds made from the objects themselves and, in the case of fruit, from fresh fruit. The earlv fiLyures were sized and painted with oil paint, but the later ones were painted with water paint and were not sized before painting. There was never any oven firing and thus no glaze. The figures were, however, hand decorated, and the work, although crude, has a certain folk quality. The artist was in most cases attempting to reproduce likenesses. The shortcomings of the untrained artists gave the pieces a primitive quality. The colors, which are usuallv pure red, green, black, yellow, and brown, have mellowed with the passing of time, so that even though they may have been harsh when they were first applied, they are now attractive.
The subject matter for the most part was drawn from Staffordshire pottery figures. There are pastoral scenes, houses, mantel clocks, and animals, as well as portraits, including Washington, Lincoln, and General von Steuben. The animals include goats, sheep, rabbits, deer, cats, dogs, birds, parrots, squirrels holding nuts, roosters, and lions. A spotted cat reminds one of the early Whieldon figures, and the reclining deer is similar to the Staffordshire deer reproduced in brown Rockingham. There are also sheep, poodle dogs, spaniels, and birds that must have been cast in molds patterned in Staffordshire. Pastoral scenes of shepherds and shepherdesses. and quaint Bloomer girls, firemen, angels, and Kris-Kringles, were also among the figures.
Pairs of stylized fruit and leaves on a vase standard w-ere made for mantel or possibly church-altar decoration. A charming figure of two birds facing each other is typical of peasant design. There is also a vase of fruit with two birds perched on top, one of two roosters facing each other, and one of a cat with a bird in its mouth. Holes for clocks or watches arc found in the center of formal groups of fruit and leaves and also in plaster-of-Paris rectangular mantel-clock shapes. Pine cones set on a base and painted yellow or blue were made in pairs for mantel decoration. Fruit pieces are harder to find than animals and birds. They were also cast in two molds, but only the front section was painted. Single oranges pricked with holes, pale and anemic in coloring, were set against a pyramid of green leaves. The pineapple or pine cones are rare. Cathedral pieces with spaces for candles and houses are also found and they too can be traced directly to Staffordshire pottery models. The portrait busts are large and styled similar to the early ones of queens and notables. Large figures of men. women, and angels are also shown sitting in armchairs. Portraits arc also made,in bas-relief and set in plaster frames, some of which imitate the oval walnut frames of the late 19th century.
Figures of plaster-of-Paris religious subjects were sold in Italy md the Balkan States, as well as the Rhine Valley and the Palatinate. Since the Pennsylvania Dutch came from the Palatinate, the theory has been advanced that the subject matter for plaster-of-Paris figures made in America had a religious background. Figures in the churches of Spain and Mexico which were made in the 19th century are a combination of wood and plaster and often have a symbol, such as a heart or a star, painted on. The conventional star on the plaster-of-Paris dog in the Brooklyn Museum and one in the Museum of Modern Art may thus be traced to an ecclesiastical origin.
These figures were never made in a factory, but were all made by individuals from similar molds. No molds have been found, but the molds themselves were probably made of plaster of Paris, which would account for the fact that none remain. The figures must be judged for their line and color and the naive and primitive workmanship which gives them their quaint charm. Although these "chalkware" figures have been reproduced, the fakes can easily be recognized, since the plaster cannot be aged.