From the Worthologists’ Archive: Native American Chalkware Bust

This chalkware bust of “Minnehaha,” a fictional Native American woman documented in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1855 poem “The Song of Hiawatha,” is from the late 19th or early 20th century.

This chalkware bust of “Minnehaha,” a fictional Native American woman documented in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1855 poem “The Song of Hiawatha,” is from the late 19th or early 20th century.

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; the second being during the Great Depression. Those made during the first period were more typically serious art; those during the second period were more typically somewhat jocular.

The family history for this particular chalkware bust is that it has been passed down through the family from a great-grandfather who had won it at a carnival in the 1930s. As the inscription on it indicates, the bust is of “Minnehaha,” a fictional Native American woman documented in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1855 poem “The Song of Hiawatha.”

The family history for this piece, like many, has probably had many additions or subtractions to the tale over the years to make it more interesting. While chalkware/plaster busts similar to this were given away as carnival prizes or sold in Five-and-Dime-type department stores, it’s unlikely this one was a 1930s carnival prize.

There are a couple of things that can be seen right off that makes this family history suspect. First is the bust’s dimensions. This bust is quite large, described to us as more than 18 inches in height. Next is the Art Nouveau style of the bust and the inscription. The chalkware given away as prizes at Carnivals during the 1920s and ’30s were quite a bit smaller in size and the Art Nouveau style this bust is in reached its peak of popularity in 1900, more than 30 years before Great Grandfather supposedly won this pieces at a carnival.

The truth is this bust’s origins were more likely in retail than show business. While a great many of the smaller and lower-quality busts were used as carnival prizes during the 1920s and ’30s, these larger, higher-quality examples depicting Native Americans were used as counter fixtures in cigar stores and are much rarer. In the current market, values for them vary depending on vintage, size, condition and uniqueness. This particular example, at 18 inches in height, is one of the larger examples and dates from the turn of the 19th century (1890-1900). The larger female Native American busts generally sell at a premium over the male figures, and the larger Minnehaha busts often sell at auction in the $350 to $500 range.


Mike Wilcox, of Wilcox & Hall Appraisers, is a Worthologist who specializes in Art Nouveau and the Arts and Craft movement. He can be reach through his website Antique-Appraise.com website.

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