Toleware: Beautiful at Any Price

“Toleware” comes from the French “tolé peinte” (painted metal). In the 1600s, Japan had stopped trading with Europe, placing their famous decorative pieces out of reach. In addition, the British no longer had access to the sumac-sap lacquer used to create the pieces. So they began “Japanning” by using oil paint, gesso and varnish to simulate the high gloss and rustproofing of authentic Japanese lacquer. Pieces from the early 1700s were typically gold and black with Asian themes.

The French added new colors and motifs, and when Toleware came to the United States it reflected a more rustic style, with flowers and folk symbols predominating.

19th Century French Toleware Tray. Photo Courtesy of Robin Jenkins Antiques, Etsy

19th Century French Toleware Tray. Photo Courtesy of Robin Jenkins Antiques, Etsy.

American Toleware
In the United States, Toleware became very popular from the 1940s to late 1950s. Much of it was created by professionals (such as Nashco, Plymouth, Hammond, Pilgrim and Goodkind) and sold in department stores. But other pieces were created by amateurs – often using a paint-by-numbers technique!

Distinctive “one-stroke” painting
A major characteristic of Toleware is what’s called “one stroke” painting. A brush is loaded with one or more colors and applied to the metal in a single stroke, quickly creating shading and depth to a leaf, flower or other decoration. The technique requires a long learning curve, and skilled Toleware artists were often employed by companies such as Wedgewood and Spode to decorate their finer porcelain items.

Toleware's "one stroke" painting technique often took years to learn.

Toleware’s “one stroke” painting technique often took years to learn.

Collecting Toleware
There’s reproduction Toleware out there and sometimes it may look like a vintage piece. If you want genuine Toleware, know what to look for.

Bold, bright colors. Artists may apply faded colors to make a piece look old. But genuine Toleware stays clean and bright – even if it’s chipped here and there.
Avoid wood or plastic. Some Italian and other pieces were painted on wood, but almost all genuine Toleware is metal. Ask an expert if you’re in doubt.
Older pieces weigh less than newer ones, and were often made with more than one piece of metal. Newer items are made with a single piece.
Rolled edges and soldered corners are a sign of vintage Toleware. Straight edges indicate that the piece was made more recently than the 1950s.
Examine the piece for “one stroke” painting.
Be suspicious of varnish – older pieces were not usually coated.

The bottom line is to know where the Toleware piece came from (provenance). The next best thing is to take an expert with you when you go shopping.

Collecting Toleware can become addictive, especially since you can pick up a nice tray for less than $50. The bright colors are the perfect complement to just about any décor. And with its handpainted beauty and craftsmanship, your Toleware collection deserves to survive into the next century!

Here’s an Etsy Treasury list of Toleware, showing the many forms it took

About sarathurston

I'm a marketing communications writer who also loves antiques and collectibles. You can find my shop on Etsy at
This entry was posted in Toleware and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Toleware: Beautiful at Any Price

I'd love to hear your thoughts (and corrections)!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s