Chalkware -- which is actually gypsum or plaster, but named aptly for its chalky properties -- is believed to have originated in Italy, where it was used for molding devotional statutes and figurines. Lightweight, cheap and easy to produce and paint with watercolors -- chalkware gained widespread popularity in the U.S. during the late 1800s and Great Depression. Today, the chalkware birds, animals, dolls and little buildings produced in those eras are collected as American folk art. Care must be taken in cleaning them: they must never be soaked, rinsed or held under running water.
Dust chalkware regularly, using a dry, soft cloth, to prevent an accumulation of dirt. Wipe the chalkware gently, paying special attention to recesses and detail work where dust can collect.
Use a cotton swab or a soft-bristled paintbrush to gently work on embedded and stubborn dirt, especially in recessed areas. Pay close attention to the chalkware surface as you clean it, to prevent damage. If you notice crumbling plaster, flaking paint, or any other signs of distress, stop immediately.
Dampen a soft, clean cloth with the barest trace of moisture -- the cloth should almost appear dry. Wipe any soot, smoke or other stains gently with the cloth to gradually remove contaminants. Avoid wiping vigorously, as you might remove the surface glaze, dulling the finish, or dissolve the paint.