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Toleware, or simply tole, refers to items and objects made of tin that have been japanned or lacquered and adorned with a picture or design. Developing in the early 18th century, this technique spread across Europe and America, and trade in these items grew over the ensuing decades.
The base for tole was fabricated of metal. Sheets of iron or steel were dipped in molten tin or pewter (which is an alloy of tin and copper) to form a foundation that could be decorated with paint or varnish. The resulting base material is often referenced as tinplate when toleware is described.
This decorating technique is said to have been developed to keep utilitarian household products from rusting, and it flourished until the end of the 19th century when the popularity of tole waned. Toleware, however, saw a brief revival in America in the 1950s that lasted a decade or so.
Also known as tôle peinte (which is French for "painted sheet iron"), painted tin, or simply tole, the technique was applied to a variety of household things—from humble utilitarian household goods to decorative fixtures—and in a range of styles. Some of the most commonly found items are candlesticks, trays, urns, and tea service or storage items.
This feature covers three types of tole from around the globe:
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- English toleware
- French tôle peinte
- American painted tin
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The British, along with the Dutch, were probably the first to develop toleware techniques, possibly as early as 1700. As with other japanned pieces, the aim was to imitate the exotic lacquered items created in Japan—pieces that were difficult to obtain, since the Japanese had closed off trade relations with most of Europe in the mid-1600s.
So, English objects often had a black base decorated in gold and ornamented with chinoiserie (that is, designs that had Asian motifs or depicted Asian scenes), as on this cellarette. Other more traditional designs can be found as well, such as tea canisters with scenes depicting English life during the time they were made. Some of these had backgrounds in dark green and other deep colors.
English tole pieces were frequently made of pewter. Some of the best quality tole work came out of Wales, particularly Pontypool and Usk.Continue to 3 of 4 below.
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French Tôle Peinte
The French took to what they called tôle peinte (which is French for "painted sheet iron") with their characteristic panache. Using their superior varnishing techniques, such as vernis martin, they produced items with different colored backgrounds and a variety of decorations. Stylish and sophisticated, pieces like these urn-shaped 19th-century chestnut jars elevated a craft into an art.
The best pieces of tole produced in France originated, as you might suspect, in Paris.Continue to 4 of 4 below.
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American Painted Tin
In the United States, pieces of toleware were imported initially. The popularity of these wares in the Colonies led to the manufacture of toleware on American soil. These pieces of painted tinware are usually associated with folk arts and crafts—though many pieces are in fact quite refined, with intricately painted designs and delicate colors.
A typical piece might be varnished with black asphaltum, then adorned with floral or local scenic motifs, but colored backgrounds were common as well. Different regions bear different characteristics in terms of design and decorations; particularly prized works came from the "whitesmiths" (what tin craftsmen were called back in the day) in Stevens Port, Maine (near Portland); Litchfield, Connecticut; and the Pennsylvania Dutch country.
During the Colonial decorating revival of the 1950s and 1960s, reproduction toleware pieces were marketed in the United States. Many of these have a Pennsylvania Dutch flair about them featuring colorful hand painting on a dark background, but they were created in factories in an assembly line rather than whitesmith shops and decorating studios like older toleware. These pieces can be attractive collectibles, especially the elaborate trays that were very popular sellers, but they shouldn't be confused with older pieces of tole.