This article discusses American folk art figurines, which were made one-at-a-time by local individuals as opposed to being mass-produced by a factory like other figurines. It notes the various influences on the figurines’ designs and the production process. It originally appeared in the January 1941 issue of American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.
Decoration for the simple farmhouse or the village-dwelling artisan’s cottage in all countries began and generally remained within the realm of the folk arts. A man might be a potter or a country joiner accustomed to turning his hand from carpentry to making simple furniture for his neighbors who followed other trades or tilled the soil. Whatever was made under such circumstances was simple in construction but colorful in decoration, for the patrons of all folk arts were unconsciously hungry for a touch of color to relieve what was otherwise plain and unadorned in their simple homes.
Some forms of folk art evolved through years or generations into more sophisticated objects of decoration; others were short lived. Still others had a tenacity of life and a virility that endured regardless of time or space. They were passed in unexplained ways from one race to another and to far distant countries. The chalk figures of the Palatinate Germans of Pennsylvania, known to all collectors as Pennsylvania-Dutch chalks, are prime examples of this transfer of a folk art from one people to another and of migration from the Old to the New World. Nor did they lose any of their primitive characteristics during their travels.
These figurines and the more imposing representations of houses and formalized fruit and flower groupings retained their folk-art quality until the last. Some of them were not made until well into the last quarter of the 19th Century when practically all of the other decorative arts devoted to making objects of household utility had been industrialized, but one has only to look at examples of chalks bearing a date as late as 1883 incised on them to realize that in both modeling and coloring Pennsylvania chalk ornaments never became a factory product. Made primarily to adorn the fireplace shelves of Pennsylvania-Dutch farmhouses, they were colorful and depicted life as these farmers saw it about them.
Many of the figures were modeled from the birds and beasts of everyday life; others depicted things further from home and turned for their forms to the pottery ornaments of cottage type that had been made in Staffordshire in the early Victorian manner. Still earlier ones took the form of portrait busts of notables. George Washington and General von Steuben were favorites of this period and are among the rarities today.
Collectors, especially those interested in primitive objects, were first attracted to
these Pennsylvania chalks because of their color and simplicity of modeling. Then
others began to realize that these characteristics made them ideal bits of decoration for old houses in the country.
Collecting of these plaster figures began about 1920, and interest in them has increased steadily ever since. The reason has been the charm and decorative quality of the pieces themselves, rather than any romantic information about their origin. Practically nothing is known of the men who made them or where they were made. But if one will take the trouble to look back into the recorded facts of folk-art history, the origin of these Pennsylvania chalks can be traced.
It was in northern Italy during the early years of the 18th Century that a folk art began of making religious figures or groups from plaster-of-Paris cast in molds and finished with hand-painted colors in strong tones. From this Roman Catholic area the folk art of plaster figures traveled up the Danube Valley into Moravia and Bavaria and thence down the Rhine Valley into the Counties Palatine.
It was from Moravia and the Palatinate that the Pennsylvania Dutch came, and with them they brought the technique of casting figures of plaster-of-Paris. But these German-speaking people, who settled in the five counties that constitute the Pennsylvania-Dutch country, were strongly Protestant in their religious beliefs: Lutheran, Dunkard, Mennonite, and Amish. Consequently, their plaster figures lost any sacred character, except for a few examples depicting the Crucifixion, and became representations of the life around them.
The pottery figures of Staffordshire also had their influence. By the early years of the Victorian period of design these were highly popular in the United States, and the Pennsylvania Dutch were partial to them as well as to spatterware and Gaudy Dutch dishes from the same source. Their own potteries, as well as those of New Jersey and the one at Bennington, Vermont, took the inspiration of these Staffordshire figures and produced their own versions of them.
But although these contemporary figures, whether made at home or in Staffordshire, were relatively inexpensive, they could never be made to sell for as little money as the Pennsylvania chalks. The latter required no dipping for glaze and color; no firing in a kiln to change them from plain clay to earthenware with a lustrous glaze. Instead, these chalk figures (one wonders why they are called that since they were made of plaster-of-Paris which is a different substance) had only to be cast in half-molds and when dry the thin shells of plaster were cemented together to produce the desired figure.
Not all were made in two parts, but many were and the mark of joining or seam can be seen if such a piece is examined closely. This hollowness accounts for the lightness of many of the chalk figures, especially those of birds and animals; it accounts for some of them being equipped with a coin slot for use as penny banks; and for the fact that enough were broken in use and discarded to make them a rare and desirable collectible today.
The larger pieces of more intricate modeling, such as the representations of houses, portrait busts, figures of women and children, and fruit, flower, and foliage groups, were generally cast as a single piece either in two-part or more elaborate molds. To give them weight, so that they could not be easily knocked over and broken, the hollow interior was filled with cheaper plaster — clay or other material — before the flat bottom of plaster-of-Paris was applied.
After the individual piece had been removed from the mold, back and front cemented together, if that were required, and the plaster was thoroughly dry, it was ready to be colored. The earlier examples show that a coat of sizing was first applied to close the pores of the plaster. Then came the decorating with oil paints. Later, the coat of sizing was omitted and the coloring was done with pigments dissolved in water like calsomine.
In either case the decorating was done by hand — quite probably by girls or women — as were the prints of Currier & Ives and other American lithographers. The maker set a finished figure before them and had them duplicate the coloring, but it was free-hand work and each piece varied slightly. That is why in pairs slight variations are to be found and also why the folk-art spirit did not disappear.
In the bright hues that were used and in the somewhat conventionalized fruit and flower pieces, a distinctly Indo-Persian influence is to be observed. This is particularly evident in the tones of red, yellow, blue, and green that were taken, possibly indirectly, from the Indian block-printed cottons, which in turn obtained their colors from the earlier Persian miniatures.
One Pennsylvania chalk figure, that of a woman wearing the bloomer costume which dates about 1853, found its inspiration from a Currier & Ives print of the same subject. So not all designs were borrowed from European or other sources. In larger pieces, surmounted by a circular element or arch and an opening in which a large key-wound silver watch could be placed. is to be found the survival of the religious shrine so often made of plaster-of-Paris for Catholic households. Resting on a base akin to altar steps, the niche in which the religious figure would have been placed is flanked by classic columns and in the niche itself may be found a small bust, a seated child or even a bird or domestic animal sitting upright.
Considering the numbers of Pennsylvania chalks that have survived and that most of those available to collectors were made some time between 1850 and 1890, it is strange that nothing seems to be known of the many who made them except a few facts passed on by word of mouth from a few of the last of the makers who always are nameless. Also, none of the molds seem to have been preserved.
There is likewise no definite information as to how these chalk figures were distributed.
Although Pennsylvania chalk figures of even the first decade or two of the 19th Century have not yet been found, we do know that plaster-of-Paris busts were fashionable with the wealthy before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In the correspondence between George Washington and his London agents there are several instances in which he ordered such busts for Mount Vernon.
There is also printed evidence that some were made in this country. In the Boston Newsletter of 1768 Henry Christian Geyer (obviously a name of German origin) advertised himself as a stone cutter and maker of plaster animals. Two years later, on January 25, his advertising mentions his portrait medallions of royalty but assures his public that they are his own make and not importations.
In part, this second Geyer advertisement reads: “that besides carrying on the Stone Cutting Business as usual, he carries on the Art and Manufacture of a Fuser Simulacrorum, or the making of all sorts of Images, viz., Kings and Queens; 2nd. King George & Queen Charlotte; 3rd. King & Queen of Prussia; 4th. King & Queen of Denmark; 5th. King & Queen of Sweden, Likewise a Number of Busts, among which are, Mathew Prior, Homer, Milton, &c. — also a number of animals such as Parrots, Dogs, Lions, Sheep, with a number of others too many to enumerate: — Said Geyer also cleans old deficient Animals, and makes them look as well as new, at reasonable Rate. All the above-mentioned Images, Animals, &c. are made of Plaister of Paris of this Country Produce, and Manufactured at a reasonable Rate.”
He closes his long advertisement with an invitation to merchants, masters of ships, country traders and shopkeepers to call on him for any plaster figures or portraits their trade might require.
Again, in the New York Journal or General Advertiser of June 1, 1769, Nicholas Bernhard, another German name, advertises “Figures of Plaster-of-Paris” which he sells in connection with his trade of carver, but the wording would indicate that these were importations rather than made by Bernhard himself.
This article originally appeared in American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.