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Painted Tin Or Tole
By Agnes L. Sasscier
( Article orginally published July 1959 )
Painted tin has long been admired by seasoned collectors as well as top notch decorators, so much so that it has been used as the focal point in the decorating and furnishing of many an old farmhouse. Its cheery presence has brightened dull days, for it falls comfortably into accord with its simple surroundings.
It seems to reach out and embrace painted and stencilled chairs, cozy stools, painted cabinets, and dower chests. Even stencilled walls have been adapted to it. Add to these, colorful braided or hooked rugs, and sporting pictures for the man of the house, and you have a happy solution for an attractive all-year-round home.
It is only natural that Tole Peinte (Tin Painted), its sophisticated French sister made also in England and on the,Continent, has been called in to give a lift to the drooping town house, for this ware played a very special part where Oriental lacquer-ware would have been too costly. Oriental lacquer-ware was extremely popular, but beyond the purse of many of its admirers. It was to satisfy this growing demand that experiments were made to discover a worthy substitute.
Toward this end Thomas Allgood came to Pontypool, Wales, in 1660, to experiment in the by-products of bituminous coal, He carried on his experiments in the Iron Works of John Hanbury, and was finally rewarded with a splendid varnish or lacquer. When tried on wood, however, it cracked or split under the firing.
So further experiments went on, and soon Thomas Allgood arrived at a solution. He figured that as the Oriental lacquer was derived from the gum of a live tree, it was perfect on wood; whereas, his varnish, having been derived from a mineral, should be perfect on metal. So, thinly rolled sheets of iron, tinned, were the result.
The method used in the early days was to immerse the piece in the liquid varnish, called japanning. It was then set upon the stove or in the oven to dry. Directly upon these pieces the decorations were painted in oil colors, to which a little asphaltum was added for wearing qualities. Often various pigments were added to the varnish, and often the clear varnish was applied to portions of a finished piece for protection.
In these early times there were no die-cut patterns, so the craftsman cut his patterns free-hand from a sheet of tinned iron, with a huge shears. I like to think of these men as laying out a pattern for a caddy, box, etc., as carefully as a woman would set a pattern for a dress. Some of the seams were riveted together, but they were as beautifully finished as a woman would sew a fine seam.
It is not to be wondered at that this ware became popular, and soon factories opened at Bilston, Wolverhampton, and Birmingham. It was exported to the Continent and to the United States, and a factory opened at Stevens Plains, Maine, about 1798 to 1800, which was perhaps the best known. This was the venture of Zachariah Brackett Stevens. At this time there were tinware factories in Connecticut.
Esther Stevens Brazer tells us that her great great-grandfather Zachariah was apparently apprenticed to Paul Revere, who is credited with a japanning factory in the mid-1700's. It was in, charge of an Englishman, Mr. Brisco, who taught japanning.
This seems very plausible, for how else would Zachariah, who had been born and brought up m rural surroundings, have achieved the finished perfection that appears in his work? It was done in the English style, mainly in florals or small fruits, though a few landscapes are known.
Sometime later Mr. Brisco came to Stevens Plains, which bears out the thought that Zachariah knew Briqco at an earlier time, perhaps at Mr. Revere's. Mr. Brisco brought with him his wife and their five nieces, whom they had adopted. These were the Francis sisters.
Evidently their uncle had taught them his skills, for they worked at the Stevens factory and decorated much of the ware. Sally, one of the nieces, was famous for her roses, and it is said that after her marriage she continued to paint, covering every available flat surface of doors, tables, chairs, etc. with her favorite flower.
Along about this time the Connecticut japanners were attracted to Stevens Plains, and Goodrich set up a factory there. They brought with them the Connecticut technique, which followed the folk-art of Germany, Switzerland, and Bavaria. This was natural as many of them had come from the Old World.
The two schools flourished side by side and sometimes co-mingled. The colors employed by the Connecticut school, as we would expect, were often a vivid red, green, or yellow accented with black. Sometimes, we find a dramatic white band outlining the top of a box, tray, caddy, etc.
This acted as a foil for the fruits and leaves, and sometimes for the flowers placed against it. On the plain pieces the stems, leaves, and flowers were composed of skilfully graduated brush strokes. This technique sometimes required years to perfect, and is the sign of the expert.
At Stevens Plains, Zachariah set the pattern for his employees, but he often worked on white for his "Brides" pieces. Many of these carried formal bouquets, sometimes accented with gold tracings. At other times he used gold on white. He also used yellow for background color. His flowers have the quality of having been washed over with a film of white.
Several years ago Maud Pastor, who had a fine collection of painted tin, came to visit us in Chicago to see our collection. When she returned to Ohio she sent me the painting on artists' paper of a tray decorated by Zachariah, and the painting had been done by his great great ganddaughter, Esther Steven Brazer, and signed by her. This treasure I greatly prize.
Another important factory was that of Aaron Butler. It was located at Brandy Hill, Greenville, N. Y. in the vicinity of the Catskills. He taught his art to his daughters, Ann, Marella, and Minerva, who decorated much of his tin.
Ann, evidently the eldest, signed her pieces "Ann Butler" within a dotted outline heart, tor her heart was really in her work. She loved it. Later she married a well-to-do farmer and went far from home, and henceforth, much of her life was spent on this farm. It is to be hoped she carried her precious box of paints with her, and used her skill to brighten her own home.
I have seen several pieces of Butler tin, with birds and hearts, but none signed. I have a document box decorated with a perfect swag and tassels, but there is no signature, only tiny dots edging the swag. I use this every day to house a small loaf of raisin bread, and so each day renews my pleasure in this piece.
While Zachariah set his patterns for his employees at Stevens Plains, at Pontypool, and at Usk, skilled artists were employed to enhance the beauty of these pieces. Of course, the classic trend was much in demand.
Always there had been the greatest care used in the manufacture of this ware, from the time the sons of Thomas Allgood opened their japanning factory at Pontypool in the late 1600's, following their father's discovery of a formula for japanning.
The sons were privileged to use this formula, as were the grandsons at a later date, but it is a well known fact that it was never surpassed. This secret formula was kept in the immediate Allgood family, but after the Pontypool and Usk factories had closed their doors the formula was unfortunately mislaid.
It came to light years later in the hidden compartment of an old desk which had been sold at auction, and where it had lain safe and sound for many years. In the meantime, electroplating had captured the public fancy, and the, lovely old painted tin was neglected.
But a happy circumstance surrounds this cheery ware. Every so often there is a rebound from gleaming metals to those of more colorful hue, and this old painted tin or tole is hunted, from attics to antique shops, and given, its rightful place in the home scene.
"Tole Peinte" (Tin Painted) is really in appearance more akin to lacquer-ware. It is more substantial, more heavily japanned, and usually beautifully decorated. It is found in elegant forms as well as severe lines, and is at home in modern or 18th century decor.
To write on painted tin made at various factories, both here and abroad, and slight the subject as regards the tin of Pennsylvania, would be foolish indeed. Books of reference for several years back have carried copious facts regarding it. Some contend it was made in Philadelphia, which is quite possible. At any rate it is appreciated throughout the state.
That it was not made in or around Lancaster is also possible. My own contention is that some of this tin came from these parts. By this I do not mean it was commercially made here, although fortunately familiarity with tin-work is borne out through signed pieces of punched tin made hereabouts.
Artisans who could cut a pattern for a tin pot to be decorated with skilful punched work, could certainly have cut tin of lowlier type. Also, if the dower chest, the Kass, chairs, and tables were decorated here, why pass up the opportunity for the thrifty layman to decorate the coffee pots, bread and fruit baskets, trays, document boxes, etc., that were an early rage.
Of course, another possibility is that, during the great Western trek, many a New England tinman with a roving foot left his native haunts and started West. In order to finance himself he may have stopped at several prosperous villages in Pennsylvania, set up his tinmans's tools, and turned out appealing pieces for the housewives.
These may have been purchased in pairs, one for the kitchen and one for decorative best. If this happened several times in several villages by numerous tinmen at least a goodly number of decorated pieces would have survived, painted in the glowing colors loved by Pennsylvanians...singing blues, rose reds, shades of green, and yellow, often accented with black.
It is also possible that many a traveling tinman paid for his food and lodgings with his skill, for what beauty-starved housewife could resist this cheerful, painted tin? And again, supposing he were of the Connecticut school, his folk art technique would naturally appeal to a people of similar roots.
There is much serious research being done along these lines by honest workers. One day this seeming riddle will be solved, as others just as important have been.