The term chalkware refers to small decorative figurines molded or sculpted from plaster of paris made with gypsum; it is believed that this art form originated in Europe, most likely in Italy. These figures were extremely popular in the 1800s and early 1900s as a less expensive alternative ceramic pieces, but they were very lightweight and delicate. Most figures were created using a two-piece mold. They were usually painted in realistic colors, and depicted an enormous variety of subjects including animals and flowers. Older chalkware pieces in good condition are valuable to collectors; howeverm they are rather rare because of the fragile nature of the figurines and the tendency of the paint to chip off.
During the 1800s and early 1900s, decorative objects for the home rose in popularity, but many were made of ceramic and too expensive for the average individual. Chalkware was a much more affordable alternative since it was made of less expensive gypsum plaster, and was easier and faster to make than ceramic. The first pieces of chalkware are believed to have been made in Italy where religious figurines of icons such as the Virgin Mary and Jesus, as well as other subject matter from the Bible, were extremely popular. The popularity of chalkware spread quickly around the world due to its affordability, even though it was more fragile than ceramic.
Most early chalkware figures were created using molds, a technique still in use today. Usually a two-piece mold is used, which creates the front and back of the figure separately, then the halves are cemented together. The finished piece is then painted, usually using a realistic color scheme. Many different types of paint can be used; in early years, watercolor and oil paints were popular, but, in more recent times, tempera and acrylic paints are frequently utilized. In modern times, it is also possible to purchase unpainted pieces that individuals can paint themselves.
Chalkware figurines depicted a variety of subject matter and they were inexpensive and plentiful; for a while, they were even common carnival prizes. For a long time, animals, birds, and flowers were extremely popular, but buildings, fruit, and cartoon-like figures also became common. In many cases, the figures depicted popular images of the times; for example, in the early 1900s during the popularity of Kewpie dolls, many Kewpie figurines were created.
Older pieces of chalkware in good condition are rare. The figures were very fragile and tended to chip, crack, and break. In many cases, the colorful paint would also chip off and efforts to touch it up would make it look worse because of the porous nature of the plaster. Whole figures with intact paint are valuable to collectors, and it is advised that they be handled very carefully to avoid damage. In some cases, pieces with minor damage also have value depending on the subject matter.