Three Types of Toleware

  • 01 of 05

    Defining Toleware

    Terra cotta and blue-colored tôle peinte tray, French, ca. 1825-50
    Terra cotta and blue-colored tôle peinte tray, French, ca. 1825-50. - Photo courtesy of www.prices4antiques.com

    Toleware, or simply tole, refers to items and objets 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...MORE 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:

    English Toleware

    French Tôle Peinte

    American Painted Tin

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  • 02 of 05

    English Toleware

    Tole Chinoiserie Cellarette
    Chinoiserie cellarette, gilt and black toleware with gilded paw feet from Pontypool, Wales, ca. 1801-25. - Photo courtesy of prices4antiques.com

    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...MORE scenes), as on this cellarette. Other more traditional designs can be found as well, such as tea canisters with 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.

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  • 03 of 05

    French Tôle Peinte

    Pair of French tole peinte chestnut urns
    Pair of French tole peinte chestnut urns, early 19th century, scenes of frolicking putti, lions head mounts at each side. - Photo courtesy of prices4antiques.com / Neal Auction Co.

    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 decoration. 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.

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  • 04 of 05

    American Painted Tin

    Pennsylvania Toleware Coffee Pot, c. early 1800s
    Pennsylvania Toleware Coffee Pot, c. early 1800s. - www.prices4antiques.com

    In the United States, pieces of toleware were imported initially. The popularity of these wares in the Colonies led to the manufacture 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...MORE 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.  

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  • 05 of 05

    Learn All About Toleware

    Read more about various types of tole painted wares including those from England, France and the United States:

    Defining Toleware

    English Toleware

    French Tôle Peinte

    American Painted Tin Toleware