Tole ware returns to popularity

Photo provided | Tole ware, like this beautifully painted tray, is increasingly popular among collectors.

INDIANAPOLIS – American tole ware stands as a bright and colorful tribute to the art and craftsmanship of the 19th century.

With a sheet of thin steel, the artists of the early 1800s created art in the spirit of the Pennsylvania Dutch. Their wares have a great crossover appeal in the world of collecting, being appreciated both as a decorative art and a form of folk art. Once stored away and dismissed as outdated, we are seeing a resurgence in collecting of both the 19th century pieces and their 20th century counterparts

The term tole finds its origin in the French term "tole peinte," which means "painted sheet metal." The process, which involves dipping sheets of metal into molten tin or pewter, produces a rust-proof foundation to which paint can be applied. Utilitarian ware with tole painting was popular throughout Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.

German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania are credited with introducing tole ware to America. They found lacquered housewares the perfect canvass for their work, adding flowers, fruit and beautiful geometric designs and sometimes the local townsmen. These early wares (1800-1850) were painted with a black, orange, a dark blackish- red or cream colored background. The surface of the pieces was left unvarnished, giving their surface a dull matte finish.

Yankee peddlers originally sold tole ware to the public. Many of these peddlers traveled great distances, taking their wares across the country. Due to its artistic appeal and practically, thousands of pieces of tole ware were sold nationwide. Sadly, many of the very early examples are found in poor shape due to their heavy use. The rarity of these pieces has driven realized pricing to a new high. A recent online search revealed a set of canisters listed for $1,100 and trays ranging from $400 to $600.

Post-1850s tole will often be stenciled and many of the wares will have a wide gold band around the edge or a thin gold line around the pattern itself. These pieces will be easier to find and more moderate in price. Boxes, teapots, sugar bowls, trays and coffee pots are common finds.

From 1920 to 1940, the US market experienced a large amount of import from Mexico and China. These reproductions are of interest to casual collectors who find their $30 to $70 price range less of a stretch than the pricing for 1800's original works. While these reproduction pieces often used the same techniques, patterns and color mixes as early American made tole ware, they are of little interest to serous collectors.

"Modern" tole ware, produced in the 1950s and 1960s, is finding an audience with the Millennials. A variety of pieces were produced by American companies including Plymouth, Nashco, Pilgrim and Fine Arts Studio. Many of these will still have their paper tag in place. Pitchers, mini-trays, wastebaskets and stacking tables are common finds.

Large "Studio Trays" from this era are currently in high demand with vintage collectors and decorators. You will be able to identify them by the one stroke painting method used in applying their decoration. Using a fully "loaded" brush the motifs on these pieces are applied, as the name implies, with one stroke. They will be bold in color and very high relief. On rare occasion you will find a Studio Tray that is signed by the artist. The presence of a signature from Paul Dennis or Fred Austin will add considerably to value.

Prices for these trays are highly effected by condition. Mint condition trays are currently bringing $130 to $170. But note, the presence of rust, dents or missing paint can reduce that price tag to under $20!

Until next time, Linda


Linda Kennett is a professional liquidation consultant specializing in downsizing for seniors and the valuation of estates and may be reached at 317-258-7835 or