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Carnival chalkware still prized
Susan Emerson Nutter

As summer winds down, county and state fairs gear up; an indicator of sorts that fall is fast approaching. Fair midways continue to be lined with games of skill and chance for those wanting to win a prize for their sweetie.

And it is all about the prizes. Huge stuffed animals go to the lucky winners who proudly carry these talismans of talent around the midway for all to “aah” and “awe” over. But large-scale fluffy polka dotted puppies or silky reclining tigers were not always the prize most desired.

Carnivals of the past; specifically those taking place between 1910 and 1940 offered up other colorful, albeit equally as tacky, awards for winning a midway game. Carnival chalkware is an American term for the figurines made most often out of plaster of Paris (though some were made of gypsum) and painted bright colors using oils or watercolors that were won at carnivals and fairs of this time period.

To back up a bit, there was a type of chalkware that pre-dates carnival chalkware. So in essence, there are two “periods” of chalkware. The first era was from the late 18th century to the beginning of the 20th century. Chalkware created during this period was not meant to be a prize, but instead an affordable copy of expensive imported English Staffordshire potteries figurines. Think pairs of seated spaniels, fancifully dressed ladies and gentlemen; reclining deer, seated cats and the like.

The Staffordshire porcelain pieces were expensive. Their chalkware imitations were not, and so those who could not afford the best, instead decorated with the chalkware equivalent. It is believed that these chalk figures were made by the Pennsylvania Dutch. Today, these early chalkware figurines, now considered folk art, rival in value the Staffordshire pieces they were imitating.

The second wave of chalkware; carnival chalkware, came about during the Great Depression, and is very far removed from its predecessor. Carnival chalkware is all about gaudy, tacky, and fun. The unsophisticated carnival chalkware’s allure is driven by nostalgia and affordability. Putting together a solid collection of carnival chalkware is doable. Grouped together, these funky, cold-painted, molded figures ooze kitsch.

Many argue that the first chalkware prizes were Kewpie dolls probably because they appeared right about the time that Rose O’Neil’s famous Kewpie Doll came into being. Because of this, some collectors say all carnival chalkware prizes for a time were called “Kewpie dolls.” Carny workers were even known to shout out to passers-by, “Step right up and win yourself a Kewpie doll!” even if the prizes available were not Kewpie dolls.

Still, Kewpie dolls were a major carnival chalkware prize and collectors of everything Kewpie would definitely want to include the wide range of sizes and color variations – some even wore wigs - of carnival chalkware made of this figure. And there are lots.

Like carnival prizes of today which attempt to appeal to the current popular trends; vintage carnival chalkware did the same. When the Lone Ranger was a radio show staple, carnival chalkware of the masked man was the top prize at the county fairs that year.

Comic strip characters, other popular radio personalities, movie stars all can be found in carnival chalkware forms. Collectors of radio personality Charlie McCarthy know that this figure was produced in a variety of sizes and color variations, and they want them all.

An entire carnival chalkware collection could be movie based. Think King Kong, Davy Crocket, or Shirley Temple. Focusing on just Disney characters would mean the collection would house figures of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Pinocchio, and Snow White.

Animals are a huge category in carnival chalkware from dogs and cats to horses and birds. Transportation is yet another category. Sailing ships, airplanes, cars – yep all were once a carnival chalkware prize.

There are lamps, bookends, string holders, and banks (and yes most were pig-shaped). A large category includes bawdy beauties – some naked; some with strategically placed stars and shells.

Christmas pieces are not in abundance, but they do exist, like churches that can be lit from within, and chalkware nodders is yet another category for those collectors who love the hunt.

Condition of carnival chalkware, like other collecting categories, does affect price, but thankfully not all that much. The nature of chalkware lends itself to being easily chipped. That’s understood. The coloration is also known to fade mainly because these items were rarely glazed. Carnival chalkware might have worn a coat of beeswax or varnish for protection, but often their porous surface was left as is straight out of the mold with only paint as its finish.

Speaking of paint, the earliest carnival chalkware were usually painted by hand, so looking at the quality of the paint job helps collectors get a feel for when it was made.

Starting in the 1920s, many pieces were air-brushed to speed up the process and because of this, details, especially facial details, suffered. To hurry along production even more and cut down on the cost of hiring air-brush artists, stencils were later employed with details becoming even more generic.

Another indicator of age is the amount of paint on a piece; especially human figures like the Kewpie Doll, Sailor or Cowboy. If both the front and back of the figure is painted, it was probably made in the 1940s.

Additions on the figure can also be an indicator. Glitter is often found on pieces made after 1930. Other additions can include feathers or even a wooden “cigarette.” Many animals made between 1935 and 1950 have glass eyes.

A figure such as Betty Boop might be found in a variety of sizes. Small figures were the lowest prize given, with the largest version being the top prize – not unlike carnival prizes today.

Know that carnival chalkware should not be cleaned. Ever. Okay, dust it off, but no water and no rubbing. Carnival chalkware should never be repainted (big no-no) or repaired. The wear is part of the charm.

Several books on the topic are interesting reads for those wanting to know more. Look for Carnival Chalkware, Giveaways, and Games from Schiffer Publishing (1995); The Carnival Chalk Prize by Thomas G. Morris (1985), and The Carnival Chalk Prize II by Thomas G. Morris, (1994). All are great places to start, especially to see images of numbers of prizes made.

Games of chance and skill will always be a part of any carnival or county fair. And while finding vintage carnival chalkware prizes might require some skill, your chances of snagging a few (or a load) of these funky, glitzy pieces from the past are still very good.

9/8/2017
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