Cool and collectible chalkware fruit brought color to postwar kitchens.
Not that long ago, kitchens were utilitarian, with little in the way of decor. But women who spent long hours preparing meals for their families soon found ways to brighten up the space— like inexpensive collectible chalkware fruit on the wall.
World War II had filled the early 1940s with worry, rationing and sacrifice. With the war’s end, the nation’s mood lifted and budgets eased. Kitchens brightened as women welcomed color to floors and walls.
Remember, even bananas were relatively new and exotic for most Americans then; shipping of fresh produce was limited. People ate fresh fruit only seasonally. Colorful apples, grapes, cherries and more became a popular motif on curtains and canisters and in dimensional chalkware wall plaques.
Despite the name, chalkware isn’t made of chalk, but molded plaster of paris painted in brilliant watercolors or occasionally oils. It was often molded into lightweight figurines, too.
Inexpensive chalkware was often given away at carnivals and sold in gift shops as souvenirs. Honeymooners might bring home a fruit plaque bearing a Niagara Falls decal or stamp.
Two-inch fruit pieces sold for as little as 16 cents, a 14-inch plaque with several fruits for $1.50. Some pieces had hooks on the bottom to hang potholders, while others held string. Fruit might be painted realistically or imaginatively; some bore cheery, whimsical faces. My grandmother often said, “Come into my kitchen so my fruit can see you!”
Women would collect and arrange pieces artfully on a kitchen wall, well into the ’60s. Chalkware is fragile, though, so these fun bits of kitchen kitsch are getting hard to find today.
Kitchen grease often accumulated in the crevices, attracting dust. Woe to those conscientious homemakers who tried to soak the grease off in dishwater, ruining both paint and plaster. Gentle spot cleaning with a dry, soft cloth, no matter how gritty or discolored the piece, is the better method. (Don’t try to retouch chipped spots; chalkware is so porous that the paint is likely to spread.)
You might still find pieces at rummage or estate sales, or online. Look for undamaged, unretouched, detailed pieces in bright colors. Expect to pay $4 to $10 for a 2-inch piece in perfect condition, or more than $100 for a 14-in. plaque with several fruits.
And who knows? Today, everyone’s trying to eat more fruit and veggies, so a nostalgic “fruit wall” might even serve as a gentle reminder when you snack or fix meals!
Barb’s Chalkware Fruit fun facts
By any other name
Chalkware looks like chalk, but it’s not. “Plaster of paris ware” would be a more accurate name, but just not as catchy.
Well, what’s it worth?
$4-$10 for small plaques (see photos 1 and 3 above); larger ones (photo 2) can run more than $100. Bright colors are especially prized by collectors.
Where to find it?
Check out rummage and estate sales, flea markets and antique malls, online sites like etsy.com and ebay.com.
In the 1940s, fresh fruit was enjoyed only seasonally. The bananas we take for granted today were a huge novelty; Miss Chiquita Banana’s 1944 radio jingle was designed to teach people how to ripen and store them. People went bananas for the jingle—at its peak, it was played 376 times a day on U.S. radio stations.
Readers bear fruit!
We challenged readers to help us build our own CW fruit wall. See the slide show above for their cool vintage chalkware finds.
—Barbara J. Eash (Country Woman Magazine’s Antiques Expert)