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What are Tole Trays?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Tole trays are metal trays which have been enameled and decoratively painted; you may also hear them referred to as “toleware.” Classically, tole trays have a matte black background with a complex and colorful design which is often heavily influenced by folk art. This style of painting and design can also be applied to other household goods like coffeepots, lampshades, and numerous other things. Some very fine example of antique toleware can be found in museums, especially in the United States, and it is also possible to purchase both new and antique toleware from shops which specialize in rustic home furnishings.

The origins of tole painting are a bit obscure. The practice of enameling and painting has been widely practiced in Asia for centuries, but tole trays seem to have emerged around the 18th century, primarily among Scandinavian immigrants in New England. In addition to trays, these artisans produced a range of other goods in the same style, and all of the work was done by hand.

Several features distinguish a true tole tray. The first is the fact that it is made from metal, rather than wood, plastic, or other materials. The metal is also often quite thin. Typically, the metal is lacquered or enameled with a layer of matte black material, although more glossy variations can sometimes be found. A design is painted on over the black; the design frequently features gilding, which stands out vibrantly against the black.

Many tole trays have floral designs, some of which are quite complex. Others may feature nature scenes, depictions of people in formal wear, or other vaguely folk-like designs. Tole trays vary widely in size and shape, from huge rectangular trays to small, delicate ovals which were designed to hold the calling cards of visitors in a more genteel age.

Some people collect tole trays, seeking out particularly fine examples and sometimes restoring damaged trays. Like many antiques, tole trays can sometimes be difficult to identify and value; if you are not an experienced collector, it is a good idea to go out with someone who knows his or her stuff, as it is easy to get swindled. Unscrupulous individuals may sand and refinish a tray with a non-original pattern, making it much less valuable, or attempt to pass off a modern tray as an antique. Learning to identify the signs of a real tole tray take experience and years of practice.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a HomeQuestionsAnswered researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By kylee07drg — On Jul 23, 2011

Tole trays are great for holding really thin items at parties. I like to place napkins on one and thin crackers on another. The pretty paintings underneath show through gaps in the piles.

However, they are not good for serving thicker foods. When I must use a tray for brownies, broccoli, or meats, I choose a wooden tray. The material is substantial enough not to suffer dents.

I once put chunks of fudge and cheeses on a delicate tole tray. The metal was so thin and old that it actually bent out of shape from the weight.

By cloudel — On Jul 22, 2011

I have some lovely Naschco toleware products in my collection. Among my favorites are a handpainted tole tray with matching coasters.

The metal tray is painted bright red. It is round with a bouquet of cream roses and dark green leaves in the middle. The colors of the bouquet remind me of magnolias. Surrounding it is a circular pattern of marks that look like wheat grains.

The coasters match the tole tray colors. Each one has one rose in the middle instead of an entire bouquet, and the grain pattern is absent. Eight coasters three inches in diameter came with the eleven-inch tray.

By StarJo — On Jul 22, 2011

My aunt collects vintage tole trays and similar items. The most striking piece in her collection is an antique tole planter lamp with a porcelain flower on top.

The planter itself is black. The top edges have gold metal framework woven into a fancy design. A light hidden down inside of the planter illuminates the wall behind the lamp. The bulb is just 40 watts, so it has a lovely, subtle lighting effect.

From the middle of the planter springs a spray of porcelain flowers. It looks like a branch of a small golden tree with leaves. Pink and gold roses adorn the spray.

By lighth0se33 — On Jul 21, 2011

I just bid on a tole tray on eBay last week. I’m getting it for my grandmother, whose house is decorated with Asian items. It will go nicely with the decor.

The try is 13"x9". The background is black, and the outer 2 inches or so have been painted with a gold color in designs alternating between latticework and wispy tendrils.

The inner portion of the tray has a painting of a pink and blue rose bouquet flecked with impatiens and bluebells. More curly stems project outward from the bouquet. My grandmother will likely put it next to her tea set that features a black background and intricate tendrils with flowers.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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