Made out of plaster of Paris, chalkware was used to create inexpensive versions of decorative objects such as figurines—so many small figurines like Kewpie dolls were given away as prizes at carnivals, the pieces became known as “carnival chalk.” Chalkware was also a good material for lightly used household tools such as string holders, as well as disposable advertising pieces such as three-dimensional signs. And small wall plaques of chalkware chefs made them popular decorations in kitchens.
Some chalkware pieces were formed in molds taken from Staffordshire and other popular figurines. Others were carved. In either case, the chalkware was just about always painted, usually with a water-based pigment. Because chalkware chipped easily and its fragile colors sat exposed on the surface of the pieces rather than being fired like a glaze (their beeswax or varnish coatings gave them little protection), very few pieces from the early 19th to mid-20th centuries, the heyday of the material, have survived without dings and scratches. Even pieces that survived unscathed often look dingy and careworn—because it is so fragile, chalkware essentially cannot be cleaned.
Chalkware was used to produce all sorts of animals, from roosters and parrots to lions and lambs. The material was also perfect for a range of Christmas decorations, including ornaments and small churches that could be illuminated from within by a candle. While most chalkware figures were formed from a single piece, some called nodders had separate heads and bodies.
In the United States, two of the main centers for chalkware were Lancaster and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, although the pieces themselves were almost certainly the work of Italian artisans who sold their wares to penny-pinching Pennsylvania Dutch farmers. Antique chalkware can also be found through New England and in the upper Midwest.