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Thursday, March 23, 2023

Scratching the Surface of American Painted Tinware

Fig. 1: Basket, 1800–1840, possibly painted by Sarah Rose Briscoe (1772–1822) or her nieces, Stevens Plains (near Portland), Maine. Winterthur Museum, Bequest of Henry Francis du Pont (1959.1991).


Fig. 2: Trunk, 1815−1850, probably made in the area of Berlin, Conn. Winterthur Museum, bequest of Henry Francis du Pont (1965.1511).
Much of the early American painted tinware that survives today was made between the 1820s and the early 1900s. Tinsmiths created domestic and workplace items from relatively inexpensive and vulnerable material—sheets of rolled iron coated on both sides with shiny white tin—and heavily worn objects were disposed of rather than treasured.

Painted tinware is more complex than its light-hearted decorative motifs might suggest, with surfaces composed of multiple coatings of a ground varnish, oil paints, and layered glazes.

Early American pharmacists and merchants advertised supplies of imported paints, freshly mixed pigments, oils and ingredients for varnishes, and bronze powders used to decorate and protect materials as diverse as wood, glass and metals. By the 1820s, available colors expanded dramatically with nuanced choices such as English White Lead or Spanish White, Chinese Vermilion or Venetian Red, Lemon French Yellow or American Yellow or the newly synthesized Chrome Yellow, or Chrome Green, as well as Orange, Spanish Brown and the familiar favorite Prussian Blue. New hues yielded more complex compositions with intense, clear pigments and options for adding shading or highlighting with colored glazes. Professional tinware decorators painted ordinary household items like bread baskets and beverage wares with lively, colorful imagery. Merchants referred to these items with asphaltum varnish1 or a bright oil paint ground color as japanned tinware, a generic term inspired by much earlier imported Asian lacquer work.

Fig. 3: Tea canister, 1820–1850, possibly made in Bloomfield, Conn. Winterthur Museum, Bequest of Henry Francis du Pont (1959.2041).

Over time, with light exposure and use, surfaces inevitably degraded. In addition to scratches and dents, tinware endured fading and loss of paint and varnish, and corrosion and flaking to the tinned undercoating or the interior. Often areas of rust from the iron core push through the surface. The bread basket with a yellowed varnish shown in figure 1 has paint loss particularly at the wired edges, which are corroding. The purple-brown ground seen on the trunk in figure 2 is an example of asphaltum varnish enhanced with colorful freehand oil painting. The varnish exhibits scratches and wear commensurate with use and age, and the glazes have faded on the red paint in the swags and candy-striped border. Likewise, in figure 3, the red tea canister’s sides now have tiny specks of shiny tin where paint has recently flaked away. Darker gray areas on the canister lid indicate oxidized tin surfaces from older losses of paint.
Figs. 4a, b: Coffee pot, 1840−1860, possibly the Harvey Filley tinshop; Philadelphia, Penn.; repainted 1920−1950s. Winterthur Museum, Bequest of Henry Francis du Pont (1965.1673).

Although never designed to attain “antique” status, when tinware nevertheless gained appreciation in the antiques market its vulnerable surfaces presented problems for collectors. Some early advocates encouraged applying a coat of clear varnish, which subsequently yellowed, while others favored touching up a surface or wholly repainting the decoration. The lively painting of the coffee pot in figure 4a is characteristic of a professional tinsmith’s workshop in Philadelphia, yet the smooth black ground color suvives in nearly perfect condition. Surprisingly, areas of exposed tin are visible only in the floral decoration (Fig. 4b) and not on the handle, spout, or areas of black on the sides. Closer examination indicates that the original asphaltum varnish was subsequently covered with layers of black and yellow paint, and some of the original flowers and leaves were overpainted. Today, this coffee pot might best be called a redecorated original.

As this brief study suggests, antique tinware isn’t easy to preserve. For best care, display it out of direct sunlight in an environment with moderate humidity and temperature fluxations.

For further reading see Yvonne Jones, Japanned Papier Mâché and Tinware, ca. 1740–1940 (Antique Collectors Club, 2012); and Gina Martin and Lois Tucker, American Painted Tinware, vols. 1–4 (Historical Society of Early American Decoration, Inc., 2000-2007).

Ann Wagner is associate curator of decorative arts, Mary McGinn is paintings conservator, and Lauren Fair is assistant objects conservator, at Winterthur Museum, Del. Photos: Laszlo Bodo

1.Asphaltum is a black or brown resinous substance, bituminous in origin, found in many regions of the world. “Asphaltum gum” was combined with mineral or linseed oil and colorants, such as amber or burnt umber, to create durable layers of varnish for metals and woods.