Being derived from ‘taule,’ an early French word for ‘table,’ by implication tole was ware for table use. Sheet iron used to make household articles was also referred to as tole. To forestall rust it would be painted, making ‘tole peinte’ (painted tole). The relationship of the word to sheet or tinplated iron notwithstanding, early on painted toleware was raised to its highest art form on a base of pewter, an alloy of metals in which tin is chiefly component. Early English tole was painted pewter.
Japanning, or decorative varnishing techniques developed in the West in an effort to imitate oriental lacquerware, became popular surface treatments for tole following the loss of access to Japanese markets by all Westerners except the Dutch in 1639. A professional Japanner’s society was formed in England in 1695, with design inspirations modeled after motifs on Oriental lacquerwork that had previously been imported into England. Most often the base color of the japanned piece would be black. This in turn would be over-decorated with designs and pictorials in gold. Using a complicated coal-based varnishing technique, japanned tole articles decorated with very fine enameled and/or parcel gilt decoration was produced in Pontypool, South Wales by Thomas Allgood. A black or tortoiseshell base color with scrolling foliage and insects or seaweed decorations may be found on Pontypool tole.
The manufacture of highly decorative tole was energized in France in the mid-1700’s, in concert with the discovery of new and better varnishing techniques. First decorated with characteristically intricate gold designs on a black background, as on preexisting examples imported from England and Holland, by the end of the century a wide variety of colored grounds were being used by the French. Onto varied ground colors such as pink, royal blue or mustard yellow was painted every possible type of decorative motif that could be imagined, from portraiture, to miniature landscapes, to mythological imaginings replete with artistic license. French tole veered away from Oriental subjects and designs that had once been the norm.
But high quality pewter, laboriously decorated tole was quite expensive. Eventually less costly production methods were needed to meet an ever-increasing demand. The clamor for affordable tole, for articles of functional use as well as the strictly decorative, originated with consumers who, while they had less to spend to obtain it, nevertheless appreciated and desired to own it. Consumer demand led to the eventual abandoning of a pewter base.
By the 1760’s, inexpensive tinplated toleware was manufactured in Britain and it is this type that soon became a frequent export to the Colonies. New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut were all known to have imported tole. A double chandelier of yellow painted tole was installed in a church in Hebron, Connecticut about 1750.
Tin or tinplate allowed for affordability, as well as durability. Very quickly American tinsmiths began to produce toleware. According to the poet-turned-historian Louis Zukofsky, American-made tin lanterns were sold in markets on the banks of the Delaware River as early as 1752 and Paul Revere carried japanned tinware at his shop in North Boston.
The artistry of many articles of early American painted tole made from the time of the American Revolution till about the first half of the 19th century could rival that of English or European tole. Hudson River School artists like Thomas Cole executed tole artwork. But American toleware most frequently was decorated with simple and familiar localized designs, with the wife or daughters of the tinsmith frequently being the unschooled artists who decoratively painted his ware. By 1800 most American towns of any size had their own tinsmith, or ‘whitesmith,’ shops.
Rarely did either maker or artist signify their hand on American toleware, but regional characteristics can be useful for helping to determine origin. For instance, designs painted on bands of white can indicate Connecticut production; the extensive use of many colors, sometimes blended, or a bold elaborate border design can suggest Maine; and a crystallized appearance to elements of the design can suggest a Pennsylvania Dutch origin. Typical motifs on Pennsylvania tinware might also include circles with thinly painted white backgrounds, unusual color combinations and ‘thumb work,’ a technique in which overtones were blended by the artist’s finger.
In the 1920’s Esther Stevens Brazer, a descendent of a Colonial era American tinsmith, took the time to research the art of early decorative painting as once had been practiced on American tole. As a consequence of her research on traditional objects Mrs. Stevens began to teach the methods and designs used from the late 18th through the 19th centuries and so initiated a revival of appreciation for what she termed Early American Decorative painting.
While today the execution of this Early American art style is often referred to as ‘tole painting,’ this phraseology is inaccurate. Books have been dedicated to teaching ‘tole painting’ techniques and artist’s associations exist for acclaimed practitioners. But, ‘tole’ or ‘tole painting’ used either in reference to the action of producing a representational artwork, or to the artwork so produced, become misnomers. A better term for the act of application on various types of surfaces, or to its appearance on a surface, would be, as suggested by Esther Stevens Brazer, ‘Early American Decorative Painting’, not tole and not ‘tole painting.’
Just as ‘china painting’ is not useful for articulating instant meaning in the identification of singular decorative design work on the surfaces of ceramics, ‘tole painting’ realistically is not useful for identifying a type of decorative design that is specific to all tole. Many types of decoration were in fact painted on toleware worldwide. Some painted designs on tole are classifiable as Chinoserie, while others were Classical in style, etc.. Mostly only in America is ‘tole painting’ commonly used as a generic reference to characteristic regional styles of American decorative painting, though with the help of the Internet the circle for misapplication of the phrase widens.
Remember, on tole the chemical composition of protective surface treatments, the base colors employed and the specific types of decorative painting varied from one century to the next, as well as from one country to another. Thus ‘tole’ and ‘toleware’ can define only a specific type of object, not certain recognizable decorations or styles of painting always employed on that type of object, everywhere.
In the antiques trade tole and toleware refer to tin or tinned metal objects primarily for household use or adornment with a painted, ‘japanned’ or lacquered surface. A gilt or painted decorative design was customary and from its beginnings in the 17th century to today, artistic enhancement served to encourage the popular appeal of tole.
Tole painting is the folk art of decorative painting on tin utensils, objects and furniture. Typical metal objects include utensils, tea caddy, planters, coffee pots, tables, chairs, log bin and chests, including hope chests, toyboxes and jewelry boxes.
The practice began in 18th century New England, and was also extensively carried on among German immigrants in Pennsylvania. A separate, related tradition occurs in the Netherlands and among Scandinavian countries and immigrants, including Norwegians, Danes and Swedes. German tole painting may concentrate more on metal and tin objects, while Scandinavians and Netherlanders may concentrate more on wooden objects and furniture. Patterns in the two traditions vary slightly as well.
Modern tole painting typically uses inexpensive, long-lasting and sturdy acrylic paints. Good quality wooden work is sealed, primed and sanded before the decorative paint is applied.
The most beloved family objects tend to be high quality utensils or furniture, painted freehand with favorite patterns, colors or flowers, humorous themes, family in-jokes, or illustrations of favorite or family stories. The perceived value of a tolled utensil increases with its quality as a utensil, the quality of the art, and the personalization, the story, of the work.
An advantage of tole painting as a craft is that a bad painting can be sanded off and repainted. One of the signs of such repaintings is a black-backgrounded tole-painted object. Very often such objects are repainted, especially if the furniture or utensil is valuable and the painter is inexperienced.