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The French name of tole goes back to the days when the metal was a composition of iron with an alloy of lead, zinc or tin to prevent it from rusting too easily. Indeed, the word tole really means sheet iron. Today most tole is a high grade of tin, lighter and more malleable than the hammered iron used in the eighteenth and in the early nineteenth century.
There are collectors of old tole who seek out originals, and for these persons antique shops and auctions are preferred hunting grounds. To experts the older specimens have a softness of color which modern reproductions do not achieve. For connoisseurs a real "find" is a tea kettle or tray whose scarlet color and decoration in gold proclaim it a product of the East, brought, perhaps, to old Salem or New Bedford in the days when American ships were in the China trade; or a piece of old English or French ware. Tea caddies in Chinese tole were popular in those days, as well as Oriental shaped covered dishes of gold and red, and boxes for milady's dressing table whose color and design suggested mysterious Cathay.
The French forms of tole of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, much reproduced today, include a great variety of utilitarian articles as well as those of pure deco ration. Classic forms of vases and urns, bearing on their sides painted shepherdesses or garlanded flutes and horns and harps on backgrounds of old dull yellow or bronze, recall the time when objects of tole were found in every home of any pretension. In the Empire period wall scones and lamps reflected the decorative motifs of that time. Pyramid forms and curved vases, supported on four lion's feet placed on a square of tole painted in semblance of black and white marble, are other characteristic designs.
English tole shows an even wider range of use than the French. Candlesticks and tea kettles, tea caddies, braziers and many trays are found in the old forms. The trays were often heavy things one indication that they are of the old-time iron. English trays of the eighteenth century made at Pontypool and later at Birmingham sometimes an old tray is stamped with one of these names are now treasured even when the decorations have faded to a semblance of their former beauty.
These trays of tole, once found on every sideboard and today an aid to establishing old-time atmosphere in modern rooms, bear on their surfaces elaborate decorative designs of peacocks and pheasants; or, in the Chippendale manner, fantastic scrolls make up the border and trailing fountains drip lines of gold and color amid tea roses, begonias, morning glories and other old-fashioned flowers. Other designs in red or black and gold depict scenes of the Orient painted by English or American artists in that imaginative style of decoration more Oriental than the Orient itself.
All these styles of the past are now reproduced for the use of those who cannot get the rapidly disappearing originals. Old specimens of tole trays, even when the decora tion has been partly obliterated by time, are taken in hand by craftsmen and the old design restored or a new pattern suggestive of the old designs painted on them. This painting of pictorial trays is an art fast dying out, but here and there a solitary worker carries on the tradition of the japanners' art. As in painting on pottery, tole, which afterward must be fired, is decorated with colors other than those which will eventually appear.
Not all the objects in tole, however, are dedicated to the past. Under the virile hand of the modern designer lamps and boxes, flower vases and desk sets appear in new forms and brilliant colors. But there still lingers around these newly made wares, in spite of their twentieth century air, some of the charm that one may find in an ancient piece laboriously hammered out of iron and worked into shape by an eighteenth century craftsman.