Saturday, November 1, 2014

Chalk It Up: Collectable Carnival Chalkware

By  Jeff Burns

I’ve always been a collector.  To the best of my memory, it’s been coins and paper money, comic books, postcards, stamps, sea shells, rocks, trading cards, Hot Wheels, books, model kits, Star Trek ship models, Looney Toon character pins, calendars, Aggie Zed sculptures, and kachina dolls, just to name a few.  Lately, I was reminded of another collection that I might just develop:  carnival chalkware figurines.

According to Wikipedia, chalkware refers to figures made of gypsum or plaster of paris, and there were two great periods of production, the 1800s and the carnival phase during the Great Depression and 1940s.  Early pieces tended to be hollow and more artistic, while the carnival pieces were often solid but garish, brightly colored, whimsical or humorous characters, even sometimes a little risqué, from comics, cartoons, movies and radio.  Kewpie dolls are a famous example. They were cheap enough that they could be given away by prizes in the various games of chance on the carnival midway.

I first became aware of chalkware as a child.  When we went to my great grandmother’s house, I was fascinate by a cowboy figure she kept in the kitchen, usually in the pantry.  I had to see it every trip, although I don’t remember being allowed to handle it often, if it all.  I usually just admired it on the shelf.  The family story was that it was the Lone Ranger, and that my great aunt (or maybe her beau) had won it at a carnival during the depression when she was a teenager.  However, when I finally saw reruns of the Lone Ranger TV show, I was confused.  The two Lone Rangers had little in common.  So I asked questions and found out that it pre-dated the TV series by several years, so the iconic image hadn’t been set.  The chalkware Lone Ranger was of the radio version, which started in 1933.  My great aunt won the figure in the late 1930s.  (Unfortunately, I don’t know what game it was.)

When my great grandmother died, and the family divided her possessions, I of course chose the Lone Ranger, and it sits in my living room today.  That’s it on the left.  Thanks to Ebay, I found another version many years later, on the right.  The two figurines display on of the interesting facts about chalkware:  even though figures might be made from the same mold, they were painted by different people in different places, and there is a wide variation among the figures.  Something recently renewed my interest in chalkware, and I did some internet research.  I found numerous interesting chalkware figurines on Ebay.  Some figures stand alone, and some are meant to be hung.  There’s a huge variety, and they’re reasonably priced.  Watch out, I might be catching the collecting bug again.


How to Identify Chalkware

19th century chalkware



1 comment:

  1. I have the kewpie doll chalkware plaster of Paris mold of the photo you have posted on your blog. I haven't seen another one like it. I just wondered if you had. I can send you a photo if you'd like.