Toleware, a term for tinned objects that have been paint-decorated and lacquered, usually with charming folk motifs, originated in 17th-century Wales. Although early examples were utilitarian in nature, many were decorated to imitate exotic Asian lacquerware imports, especially those from Japan. Cups, pans, pails, coffee pots and other standard household items boasted fanciful chinoiserie-style designs against shiny black “japanned” (aka lacquered) grounds.
British “whitesmiths,” a term coined to mean tinsmiths, worked magic through the medium of toleware. With a thin tin coating and a deft creative hand, any humble household item could be transformed into a durable, decorative statement. As toleware became more fashionable, British whitesmiths created pieces that held higher regard in the home, such as wine coolers and molasses dispensers.
With the advent of roller mills, which pressed smelted iron bars into thin sheets ready for tinning, production of basic flat household toleware pieces soared. Through the mid-18th-century, both toleware and pressed tinned sheets were exported to the Colonies. Edward and William Pattison, enterprising whitesmiths based outside of Hartford, Connecticut, created similar kitchen wares of their own. Their business flourished as they took a business-to-consumer approach, peddling their fanciful wares door to door.
After the Revolutionary War, family-run toleware workshops also arose in Maine, New York and Pennsylvania. Simple, useful items were always in demand, but some whitesmiths graced more ornate creations with cut, punched, pierced, gilt, beaded, flat or raised details. They enlisted their wives and daughters to add freehand painted floral images in a process commonly known as “flowering.” More complex images could be produced through the use of multiple stencils. Most of these American toleware designs feature red, orange and yellow bouquets against green or black grounds. Other American toleware motifs were inspired by images found on costly imported porcelains.
The Pennsylvania Dutch (an aberration of the term “Deutsch”), a distinct European cultural group of farmers and artisans also known as the Pennsylvania Germans, settled across the southern and eastern parts of the Keystone State in the 18th and 19th centuries. Their tan, rust red, green and pumpkin-yellow toleware designs, rendered in sweeping brush strokes or by “thumbing” (blending applied paints with finger or thumb), are reminiscent of European peasant designs. In addition to fruit and florals, Pennsylvania German tolewares often bore geometric shapes enhanced with stylized images of birds, farm animals, tulips or hearts-and-flowers against dark lacquered grounds.
Although toleware fell out of fashion by the turn of the 20th century, these now-antique pieces have earned legions of fans. British, American and Pennsylvania Dutch tolewares are ardently collected, but so, too are French tolewares, famed for their superior lacquer, varied palettes, fine embellishment and elegant floral designs.
Toleware pieces that reflect the 19th-century French fascination with mystery and illusion might be the most intriguing of all. Elaborate magic sets were made from toleware, and sleight-of-hand tricks with names such as Scotch Purse, Hammer and Ball, Die Through Hat and Bonus Genius, often employed colorful toleware coin-conjuring plates. Hand-painted toleware changing canisters helped magicians produce objects or make them disappear, while colorful card-changing ladles fitted with hinged, moveable tin leaves inside the bowl captured and held magicians’ chosen cards.
The quirky toleware Cards and Card Bouquet magic apparatus, once linked to the famed French stage magician Alexander Herrmann and once part of the Circus Museum of Sarasota Collection, was no less bewitching. It featured an internal mechanism which, once a spectator’s secret card choices were returned to their deck, reveals them in all their glory.
Toleware may have been vanquished with the rise of plastic, but it hasn’t left the art scene completely. Hermes, the fashionable, centuries-old French company, produced a coffee table with a toleware tray top in Veuve Clicquot’s trademark yellow, emblazoned with the Champagne producer’s brand name. An example of the table hammered for $4,000, 10 times its low estimate, in August 2021. But it’s the antique tole pieces that dominate, reminding their owners of plucky cottage entrepreneurs who found a way to create objects that were both useful and beautiful.