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.