Carnival Chalk Prizes Collecting Kewpie Chalkware

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Carnival Chalk Prizes Collecting Kewpie Chalkware
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Some History of Carnival Chalkware

Collectible Carnival Chalk figures were first made at the turn of the century around 1910. It was made and sold until the 1950s.  The earliest of chalkware had a pink tint to the cast and manufactured for about 10 to 15 years.  The early figurines were mostly popular personalities of the time, like the Kewpie Doll, Popeye, Rin Tin Tin, Betty Boop and her dog Bimbo and the likes. 

Prior to that, Pennsylvania Chalkware was manufactured in the United States and sold in the early 1800s.  It took almost 100 years before the Carnival Prize Chalk figures made their debut on the American Scene.  There are many similarities between Carnival Chalk Prizes and the Pennsylvania Chalkware.  Both were made of inexpensive plaster of paris.  Usually made with a distinguishable gaudy and bold colors.  And usually made by Italian families.  Since none of the products were marked by the maker, they are very hard to trace.

Long before Disneyland, the carnival or circus was the place to go for thrill rides, shooting galleries, games of chance, sideshows and entertainment.  They traveled from place to place, so when the Carnival came to town, you had only a limited time to visit the venue.    Early street fairs were put together by promoters, and the first State Fair came to be in 1904.  Now carnivals and fairs had something in common, and even more reason for the local residents to attend.  As the size of the event grew, so did the need to find a reason to attract attention to a single "show" inside the carnival.  The games of chance began to give Chalkware prizes away for reaching certain skill levels.  The first prize, somewhat smaller, for reaching a smaller skill level.  As you gained skill, and acheived higher levels, the prizes also got bigger and better. 

Chalkware Prizes were won by a lad to impress his gal, or to one up his competition.  However, these figures chipped and broke very easily.  Many became the targets back home for sling shots, and young girls used the broken pieces to make sidewalk hop scotch games.  Today, finding pieces that survived, both the duration of time, and without chipping or breaking is getting harder and harder.  eBay has become the prime location to trade in your duplicates, or find pieces that you are missing. 

Chalkware prizes were replaced by stuffed animals in the 1960s, being less expensive, not breakable and mass produced.  Disneyland, started in 1955 by Walt Disney, also created a new an more elaborate venue for  entertainment, not replacing the carnival, but certainly changing the way we expected to be entertained.


Sometimes called Kewpie Chalkware, the Carnival Prize appeared on the scene about the same time that Rose O'Neill's famous Kewpie doll was born.  Carnival people coined the phrase "come on over and win yourself a Kewpie Doll" making it a generic name for all Chalkware Prizes, be they Kewpie, Snow White, Pop Eye or what ever they had.  The 'Carny' also refered to all the prizes as 'plaster', and figurines as 'Kewpie'.  And many early figurines came with wigs.  They were also refered to as dolls, when they are not dolls at all, but chalk figures.

Most of the early figures were painted by hand.  More care and detail are found in these pieces.  Faces, no matter what the age, are the most important detail to the piece.  In the 1920s they began using the air brush, and became very good and much faster.  Thus allowing them to produce more pieces per hour at a much cheaper cost.  Later, to further reduce costs, stensils were used so they could use hourly wage earners instead of experienced air brush craftsmen. 

Many of the pieces in the 1940s were completely painted, front and rear. Towards the end of the era, in the 1950s more quality is evident in the prize itself.  Much of the carnival chalk after the 1930s has sparkling glitter.  Other features found to add dimension and value to the prize were chicken feathers, a corn cob pipe or a cigarette.  Some animals made between 1935 and 1950 may also have glass eyes.

El Segundo Novelty Company expalined that two qualities of plaster were used to make the prizes.  Since most of the prizes were hollow, the first pour was of a finer quality than the second pour.  Giving the outer skin a smoother surface.  The reason for using a lesser quality in the second pour was not for strength, but financially allowed them to make the figure for less.

Condition was always a factor, being very fragile, chips nicks and breaks were a part of the product.  Often a manufacturer would spray a coat of protective varnish or lacquer over the finished piece to help protect it. 

A few fine artists, during the depression (beginning in October 1929) created character dolls and give away prizes.  Many of these images were taken directly from an actor or actress or cartoon character.  Some of the more sought after pieces were Betty Boob, Hawaiian Girls, later replaced with Sailor Girls and Boys or military prizes during WWII.

I highly suggest getting The Carnival Chalk Prize Pictorial Price Guide by Thomas G Morris for help with identification and pricing.  The first book published in 1985 with Book II published in 1994.  Followed by a Price Guide to chalkware/plaster Carnival Prizes in 1998.  You can find Thomas G Morris in Medford Oregon.


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