Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery


In humbler households in England, Europe, and the colonies, inexpensive chalkware copies of the desirable and expensive Staffordshire ware sat atop mantels. Chalkware ornaments cast of gypsum based Plaster of Paris came in all the favorite Staffordshire ware shapes: kings, queens, heroes, animals, and the latest fad--shepherds and shepherdesses complete with sheep.

Plaster of Paris took its name from the large gypsum deposit discovered at Montmartre in Paris. When heated so that it gives of water as steam and then ground into powder, gypsum becomes Plaster of Paris. Mixed with water, Plaster of Paris returns to gypsum. Plaster of Paris can be readily molded into various shapes. After being allowed to dry in the mold, Plaster of Paris becomes an easily sanded, adhered, or painted ornament.

The mining of gypsum at Montmartre and the preparation of the mineral into plaster kicked into high gear after Louis XIV ordered all wooden buildings in Paris plastered as a fire safety measure after London burnt to the ground in 1666. Experts in plaster ornamentation were soon creating stucco duro ceilings and plaster swags of flowers in the Rococo style.

To create chalkware figures, Plaster of Paris was mixed with some water to form a putty consistency, poured into a mold, which was then rotated and rolled so that air bubbles were eliminated, and allowed to dry before opening. Molds were made up of two or more sections, to accommodate undercuts and other details, which were bound together before being filled with wet plaster. Mold lines appear on most examples of chalkware. Finished figures painted either with tempura, watercolor, or oil-based paint are still in existence.

Chalkware manufacture remained a cottage industry. A book illustrated with quaint engravings, Cries of New York, dating from 1808, includes the image peddler with his tray of chalkware figurines and his cry: "Images. Very fine, very pretty." The text explains that representations of animals were made of Plaster of Paris, a "kind of stone from Nova Scotia."

(Picture of chalkware peddler from Cries of New York.)

Chalkware examples online:
Brandywine Museum
Antiques and Fine Art



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