Chalkware denotes a type of ornamental figurine cast from gypsum-based plaster of Paris. It was very popular in the 19th century and was sold primarily as a less expensive version of the ceramic Staffordshire figurines that adorned the mantels of many middle- and upper-class homes. Chalkware also encompasses figures called carnivalware. From 1910 to 1940, chalkware evolved into garishly painted figures of cartoonish animals sold at carnivals and fairgrounds.
Look for animals, idyllic peasant figures and fruit. Common chalkware subjects include animals such as dogs, cats, roosters, squirrels, parrots and deer. Animals are commonly sleeping, sitting or generally recumbent with one leg extended as though they are about to rise. Figurines of people include shepherdesses, kneeling children, angels, nativity scenes, Saint Nicks and Madonnas. Fruit is often depicted in a plastic bowl.
Look at the paint. Each figurine was hand-painted, and few pieces were glazed, unlike the Staffordshire they imitated. Most figures have a matte finish, with the exceptions of building fronts, which may have glazing on the windows. Later pieces are less commonly glazed and were not fired. Modern chalkware artists paint their figurines with tempera, but most old pieces were painted with watercolors or oil-based paints. Animals are very realistically depicted with lots of detail (spots on fauns and the like), while fruit may be more fantastically painted--for instance, purple pineapples and blue bananas.
Pick up the pieces to gauge their weight. Chalkware pieces are heavy on the bottom. All chalkware is hollow, but old pieces are lighter because they lack the heavy plaster base that chalkware artists began to incorporate to keep the figurines from tipping over. Reproductions are heavier than old pieces.
Examine the bottom of the piece. According to Vaillancourt Folk Art, contemporary chalkware pieces are labeled on the underside with the piece design number, the year and a copyright date. They may also have a studio name and/or place name. Examine the inside of antique pieces--they are not likely to have such explicit identification as the modern labeling--for evidence of the glue that holds the two sides of the mold together.
Look for mold lines. Artists formed their pieces by pouring plaster of Paris into two separate front and back molds, which were then cemented together and the edges sanded and smoothed. Practitioners today may use up to 12 different molds that are then pieced together.
Look for breaking, chipping and flaking. Chalkware has a normal tendency to degrade in such a manner. Chalkware is fairly mold-resistant, but exposure to water will cause it to come apart. Old pieces may have been touched up at some point. Because the plaster is very porous, any touchups will be noticeable by the way the paint has spread beyond its boundaries.