The Collector’s Minute: Chalkware and Plaster Busts

This chalkware bust of Minehaha shows some chipping, which should not be repaired as it adds a patina that collectors crave.

Chalkware or plaster busts like this generally can date from the turn of the 19th century through to the 1950s.

While not mass-produced in the modern sense, they were made in large numbers, and many were given away as carnival prizes or sold in “five and dime”–type department stores. A great many were also used as counter fixtures in cigar stores.

Chalkware is made of 
sculpted gypsum or cast from plaster molds and painted with watercolors. Most were made in one of two periods; the first beginning in the late 18th century and ending by the beginning of the 20th century, and the second during the Great Depression.

Those made during the first period were more 
typically serious art. Examples made during the second period were more typically made as novelties or carnival prizes rather than decorative art.

Chalkware is easily damaged, and it can be difficult to find unblemished condition. It’s not uncommon to find examples that have very poor repairs and repainting. Chalkware can be easily restored, though, even badly broken pieces can be 
reattached with standard white carpenter’s glue and the broken piece propped or taped into position until the glue sets.

Minor dings and dents should be left as is, as it adds to the character and gives them an aged patina so sought after by collectors.

Chalkware should be kept out of damp areas, as dampness will cause the painted finish to bubble and flake, eventually causing mold to form.

This particular example of “Minnehaha” dates from the turn of the 19th century. Minnehaha was a fictional Native American woman documented in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1855 poem “The Song of Hiawatha.” In today’s market values for a bust like this vary on vintage, size, condition and uniqueness, and the female Native American busts generally sell at a premium over the male figures. Comparable examples to the “Minnehaha” shown here often sell at auction in the $400- to $750-range.


Mike Wilcox, of Wilcox & Hall Appraisers, is a Worthologist who specializes in Art Nouveau and the Arts and Craft movement.

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