Dying occupations

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Dying occupations

Elżbieta Porębska-Kubik Download PDF
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Situated at the banks of the Dunajec, Raba, Kamienica, Skawa, Białka, Biała, Ropa, Prądnik, Szreniawa and other rivers and rapid streams, the historic factories and wooden industrial plants in the country operated using the forces of nature, such as water and fire. The water falling down on waterwheels with great force moved the wooden devices in the country mills, lumber mills, fulling mills, oil mills, etc. Fire was used for work in smithies and pottery kilns. Many items essential to households were produced in the countryside to satisfy the needs of the inhabitants of the village and its neighbouring areas. Many products came from other areas: they were bought at fairs and markets in nearby towns, during pilgrimages to church fairs; while some goods were delivered by travelling merchants straight to the people’s homes.

Traditionally-made folk craft products of local or foreign origin can be found today in traditional museums and open-air museums. In this way, some “historical wooden factories” and their devices were saved.

Crank butter churn Nowy Sącz District Museum (Muzeum Okręgowe w Nowym Sączu)

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Butter churns (Polish: maślnica) made of wooden planks joined with metal hoops, also known as maśnica (Orava), maślnica (Babia Góra highlanders) and kiernicka (Podhale region), could be found in every village kitchen among other indispensable cooperage vessels of everyday use. Housekeepers used them to beat the cream collected from milk in order to make butter. The butter churns with a wooden plunger were replaced with more comfortable crank butter churns, for example, in Orava they appeared in the interwar period in the 20th century.

However, during Lent, linseed oil was usually used in the countryside instead of animal fat, e.g., butter.

Oil mills were present in the village landscape up until the middle of the 20th century. Similarly to other rural industry workshops, they were located at rivers and rapid streams.

Oil mills came to life in the winter period, usually in January and February, because linseed oil was used as grease in the country during Lent. Animal fat was not used then to observe the religious commands. Neighbours arranged meetings to come to the oil mills and “beat oil" together from linseed, which was brought by every one of them. In the oil mills there were two main wooden devices of considerable size: a crusher that was moved by the hands of usually several men in order to beat linseed into pulp, and a press, also operated by hand, to press the oil from the ground mass to which a small amount of water was added. During the work of these sizeable devices “the oil mill shook with every beat, and a muffled rumble spread through the village," which usually lasted a few hours at a time. The work was directed by the owner of the workshop who was paid for access to the oil mill and for his own work. For example, according to Henryk Jost, in the 1930s in the Podhale region an oil mill owner was paid 20 grosz to process 1 pot of linseed (with a volume of approx. 4-5 l), the so-called press cake, that is linseed waste that remained after the oil was pressed was used as a valuable addition to farm animal feed and leaks, that is, oil remains.

Oil mills were often handed down from one generation to the next, and the owner had to have extensive technical knowledge and experience.

But it is pointless to look for these specific oil mill buildings along rivers and streams.

The oil mill owner profession ceased to be useful, as the demand for linseed, which had been used as a popular food, as well as an item for paint production, leather conservation, lighting (for oil lamps), disappeared. In 1832, when Seweryn Goszczyński resided in Łopuszna near Nowy Targ (1832), oil lamps were used for lighting, but as early as 1891 Stanisław Cercha wrote that “houses are lit with glass lamps bought in Nowy Targ and filled with gas, that is paraffin.”

Oil mills gradually disappeared from the countryside landscape, and in the 1960s in the Podhale region there were no more operating facilities of this kind. As stated by Henryk Jost, there were no operating oil mills from the 28 mills registered at that time in the Podhale region by the Podhale Committee for Heritage Preservation of the Polish Tourist and Sightseeing Society. Some of them were saved by moving them to open-air and other museums as technological monuments. For instance, the press from Gródek was housed in the Folk Construction Centre in Szymbark, the oil mill from Ochotnica Górna in the Ethnographic Museum in Krakow, the oil mill from Poronin in the Tatra Museum in Zakopane, and the oil mill from Lipnica Wielka in the Orava Ethnographic Park in Zubrzyca Górna.

“Farbonica” skirt Tatra Museum (Muzeum Tatrzańskie)

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Linen cloth was weaved in the weaving workshops by specialised craftsmen, the so-called knapi. According to Anna Bartosz, in the Tarnów region there was as many as several dozen or so of such craftsmen in every village, but at the end of the 19th century this occupation started to vanish. One of the well-known weaving centres in the Podhale region was Jurgów. Linen yarn was used to weave cloth and delicate, fine linen fabrics.

In the 19th century, or even in the interwar period, weaving was an in-house industry in such regions as Orava, Podhale, and the Babia Góra area. Women weaved fabrics throughout the entire winter. The sizeable weaving device of the workshop stood in nearly every cottage, usually in a big white room.

Before linen was ready for sewing, every housekeeper had to conduct a number of works related to the cultivation and processing of flax that spanned over the course of many months. In the spring the housekeepers seeded a flax plot of one or two field patches, and then "When the flax blossomed, it was a joy to behold. Tiny blue flowers formed a beautiful sky-blue field. Oh, my!”,­ recollects one of the Bukowina Tatrzańska inhabitants (see: S. Galica Górkiewicz). When the flax flowers turned into brown balls, the housekeepers pulled them out, bound them into bundles and combed (old Polish: rafać) them in the barn in the evenings. What followed then was, for example, soaking the bundles in the river, spreading the flax on the meadow to dry for about 3 weeks, collecting the flax once again, binding it into bundles, drying it under the thatched roof, beating the dry flax with bats, rubbing it to get rid of husks and re-combing it so that the fibres, that is, the proper linen could be separated from the so-called shreds. In the winter the spinning and weaving started in the weaving workshops. These straight fibres were used by housekeepers to spin fine linen threads on a spindle and thick threads of shreds on a spinning wheel.

Fourfold fine fabric was used to make shirts, underwear and table cloths, pre-processed carding fabric for bed linen and work outfits, and coarse fabric for mattresses, bags, etc. The linen was produced for the household’s own needs, and, as Stanisław Cercha writes, “it was rarely sold at fairs, and a piece of cloth (25 ells) cost 5 zloty.”

In May and in the summer women bleached the cloth weaved during the winter, spread out the cut-up pieces of cloth in the sun by the river, and doused them with clean water, sometimes even several times a day. “In the autumn at the Łopusznianka River you can see drying white linen pressed with stones so that the wind would not take it. They are poured with water and lightly sprinkled with cow manure for better whitening.” (S. Cercha) Legend has it that the name of the Lemko village of Bielanka comes from the inhabitants' occupation, that is the cultivation of flax and weaving. It was supposedly granted by Princess Kinga, who passed through this village and must have seen the white linen in the sun.

The blue flax fields disappeared from the rural landscape in the 1960s.
White cuha jacket Tatra Museum (Muzeum Tatrzańskie)

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“When the fulling mill is in motion, you can hear the constant rhythmic ramble of crushers falling down and hitting the sack-shaped grooves of the mortar,” wrote Tadeusz Seweryn, with a graphic description. In many villages this sound was very common by the rivers and rapid streams, even in the 19th century, because this was the location of the crafts workshops whose devices were powered by a waterwheel. The fulling mill was one of them. In many villages, e.g., in the Podhale region, housekeepers weaved wool cloth in nearly every house, and then took it to a fulling mill, e.g., from Łopuszna near Nowy Targ to Maciasz at Niżny Zarębek, where the fulling mill over the Łopusznianka River operated until World War II (at present it can be seen in the open-air museum in Zubrzyca Górna). In Jurgów, well-known weaving centre in the Spiš region, there were two fulling mills, and one of them was still operating in the 1960s.

The fulling mill owner turned the homespun wool into cloth. As Jan and Stefan Reychman wrote, before fulling took place one had to keep the fire going under the cauldron for the entire night. Here, in the wooden fulling mill by the river there was the peasant industrial facility, in the semidarkness, lit only by the fire burning at the stone stove, the wool material shrank and, at the same time, became denser and thicker by the hot water boiling in the cauldron on the stone stove and discharged with a trough to the grooves of the mortar, a thick fir tree log lying on the ground, where the wool material was fan-folded and hit with a crusher. “During fulling the building was filled with steam bursting from the cloth doused with hot water and smoke that settled on the ceiling and walls, covering them with a thick layer of soot,” write the Reychmans. In this way, cloth was made that was used to sew warm clothes, such as cuha jackets, sukmana coats and the highlanders’ trousers. The material for kapce boots was beaten twice to form a denser cloth. As the Reychmans state, within 24 hours the fulling mill could process about 30 m of non-processed, thin fabric made in the home workshops and brought by its owners to the fulling mill owner. This gave only 16 m of the finished product. It was said that the fulling mill owners “live off what others lose,” because about 30-50% of fabric delivered by the fabric owner was lost as a result of fulling. The fulling mill owner cleaned the fulled wool material and then dried it in the sun. Then they collected a fee for the finished cloth. As the Reychmans state, before World War I, the owner of the fulling mill at the Roztoka clearing in Witów was paid two sixes, that is 40 hellers, for every produced fathom. “White cloth for trousers and cuha jackets, grey for slippers and boots (...) was brought to this fulling mill by highlanders not only from the Podhale region, but also from the Polish Orava. Before World War II, for well-fulled, ell-wide cloth from Zakopane one could get 3.5 to 4 zloty per ell (60 cm). At that time, the fulling mill operated three times a week on a regular basis, then the operation became rarer, and in 1932 it suffered its first losses (J. Reychman, S. Reychman). The fulling mill owners did not work all year round, but seasonally, as the frozen rivers or streams made it hard to move the waterwheel. In the winter one had to crush the water frozen in wooden troughs with iron hammers. Problems were also caused by floods that destroyed the fulling mills. Sometimes fulling mills were turned into other rural facilities, e.g., the fulling mill in Podczerwone was turned into a mill in the interwar period.
"Our lady of Ludźmierz" glass painting Tatra Museum (Muzeum Tatrzańskie)

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This picture is the work of a modern folk artist, Władysław Walczak-Baniecki from Zakopane. The author's work and personality reflect the changes that took place in this field of art, which is the folk painting on the glass.

The glass painter occupation is one of the art occupations performed, or rather practised, today by talented, self-taught artists. Some of them apply for the prestigious status of folk artist granted by the Association of Folk Artists on the basis of the author’s oeuvre and achievements.

The painting termed by Józef Grabowski as “under glass” and commonly known as “on glass” is practised today primarily by the Podhale highlanders, who refer to old patterns. The difficult technique of painting on glass which involves painting the “reverse” side of the glass and requires laying the contour first, marking the details and subsequently filling them with colours to finally fill the background planes with colours, etc., has been taught to children in the Podhale region. In 1946 the Tatra Museum in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture organised the courses, and at the beginning of the 1950s Helena Roj-Kozłowska, a folk artist, taught this technique to the highlanders’ children. Although it is believed that painting on glass is typical of the folk art of the Podhale region, researchers claim that its origins stem from other areas and point to other precursors of this art.

Paintings on glass that were hung in the highlanders’ cottages in the 18th and 19th centuries depicted patron saints and were hung diagonally under the ceiling of the white room in the sacred corner, the most honoured place in the house. People tried to have as many patron saint guardians and supporters as possible in the room so as to ensure their care and success in their personal and professional life. According to researchers, the old paintings on glass did not originate in the Podhale region.

Highlanders bought them most often from picture sellers, also known as Hungarians, pedlars who could be found in the Podhale region before World War I. They brought these pictures on foot from places in Slovakia, Moravia, Bohemia and Silesia that were home to glass works and the neighbouring paint workshops producing pictures of glass tiles that were somehow defective and not fit for windows. There were known glass works at the Bohemian-Silesian, Bohemian-Austrian and Bohemian-Bavarian borders. Paintings on glass spread from these centres throughout Europe. At that time, the pictures were produced on a mass scale, for example, Józef Grabowski states that one of the Austrian centres (Sandl) employed five people who could jointly paint 200 pictures a day. In one of the well-known Bavarian glass painting centres, picture sellers, known here as kraińcy, distributed the pictures by setting off on a journey lasting about 6-8 weeks and then returning for new goods. This happened five times a year. The picture sellers carried the pictures on their backs in special wooden looms, and even reached the remotest regions of Galicia. They formed a separate professional group, and even had a special jargon of their own. Highlanders bought the glass paintings at fairs, or brought them as souvenirs from church fairs. The most popular locations of these were Ludźmierz, Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, Częstochowa, and Levoča and Kežmarok in Slovakia.
Field smithy Marcin Mikuła Locksmithing Museum in Świątniki Górne (Muzeum Ślusarstwa im. M. Mikuły w Świątnikach Górnych)

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In the 19th century the village blacksmiths, similarly to millers, frequently belonged to the wealthiest group of householders. They were respected as craftsmen, and their occupation was inherited within the family by sons and brothers. Most of them worked in other occupations as well, for instance, they cultivated land, acted as cart-wrights, carpenters, etc. Built from round logs for the skeleton, wooden smithies were usually small buildings (e.g., 4 x 4 m) with a protruding roof under which the blacksmith performed his works and his clients could hide in case of inclement weather. Smithies were located close to the water, usually in busy places near main roads where they were easily accessible and where it was possible to shoe a horse, if necessary. The smoke coming from a smithy’s chimney, the fire burning in the hearth, the crackle of leather bellows moved by the blacksmith’s assistant who pushed air into the hearth, and the sounds of a hammer hitting the iron lying on an anvil meant that the work in the smithy was in progress. “In every village there are several wealthy farmers (gazda) who have their own smithies and know the blacksmith’s work, which is quite common considering the highlander’s dexterity with manual work. He can forge everything and sometimes can even adorn some items, which is manifested by the various handles, axes, crates with flourish, or Walczak’s hinges at Skibówka, engraved with highland themes and bent into adder’s heads,” quote the Reychmans after Władysław Matlakowski (second half of the 19th century). The highlanders obtained the semi-finished goods they needed from the local forge, e.g., in Kuźnice near Zakopane.

Blacksmiths were often of Gypsy origin. At first, they performed the blacksmith’s work occasionally as travelling Gypsies, but over time they made their way to their own smithies. As Adam Bartosz writes, up until World War II Gypsies usually entered the blacksmithing occupation in the subcarpathian region, and the words Gypsy and blacksmith became synonymous. The demand for blacksmith products was the direct reason why Gypsies settled in the Polish Spiš region. They were masters in producing wrought cauldrons, pans, hoes and other tools. The smithies worked to satisfy the needs of the inhabitants of the village and its vicinity, but in the winter, when there was nothing to do, the Gypsies took their products to fairs that were often organised in far-off cities and towns. The Spiš region blacksmiths walked to Nowy Targ, Krościenko, and were sometimes given a lift in a wagon or sleigh by the highlanders going to the fair. As Bartosz writes, “a Gypsy blacksmith with his wife or daughter took the previously prepared products and often walked with them to the city. A Gypsy was able to take 15-30, or even 50 kg of products at a time, while the women carried 4-15 horseshoes or hoes (15-15 kg). They also sold axes, nails, chains, knives, caps for axes, etc., and sharpened the tools brought by farmers on the spot.

According to Adam Bartosz’s research, before World War I they carried their goods as far as the fairs in Jabłonka, Czarny Dunajec, Spišská Stará Ves, Kežmarok, etc. At that time, they were practically the only blacksmiths at the fairs.

At the end of the 19th century four blacksmiths had their workshops near the Dunajec River and Łopusznianka stream banks in Łopuszna, near Nowy Targ (“they made wheels, blades, scythes, etc."). Three of these workshops belonged to local householders, and one to a Gypsy "who lived in the smithy with his entire family," as Cercha writes. The small smithy building usually housed a stone or brick hearth with leather bellows lodged in wooden stumps in the corner, dug-in vice and anvil, and other tools like hammers, pliers, cutters, drills, etc.
Cereal chest Aleksander Kłosiński Museum in Kęty (Muzeum im. A. Kłosińskiego w Kętach)

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Grain was ground to make flour in the village mills located by the rivers and streams, and moved with the power of water. Such mills could be found by the rivers: Prądnik, Szreniawa, Dunejec Biały and Dunajec Czarny, Kamienica, Białka, Raba, Ropa, Skawa, Soła, Łopusznianka, Kirowa Woda, etc. At first, the mill owner with his farm hands processed the grains delivered by farmers, and then collected the fee in kind, in the proper quantity of produced flour. According to Jost, a well-known researcher of the subject, before World War II there were 258 village water mills in the Podhale region, but in the 1960s there were only 81 mills of this kind.

In the years that followed, the characteristic wooden industrial facilities gradually disappeared from the river banks.

“Built as a regular cottage,” such a wooden building housed the Roztoka estate mill at Kirowa Woda in Witów, described by the Reychmans, where some of the edifices also included kitchen and summer guest rooms (1960s). The scholars that were mentioned before write that outside of the building, in the outhouse, there was a waterwheel lodged on a shaft held together with iron hoops. The second cog wheel, the so-called palecne, was fitted in the shaft section located in the building. The major mill devices are two millstones: the lower is immovable (the so-called lower stone, bedstone), while the upper is movable (runner stone), but, as the Reychmans write, the runner stone is always thicker than the bedstone. Millstones for the Podhale mills were usually brought from the Myślenice area and Slovakia because the Podhale region did not have stone types of sufficient quality.

The device was powered with water running from the stream through the ditch (przykopa) and wooden flume.
The water moved the waterwheel, which caused the shaft to turn together with the cog wheel. The palecne wheel, in turn, moved the inside devices. The Reymans describe the mill operation in the following manner: the grain "put into the basket is poured from a trough shaken by the shaker to the runner stone hole, settles on the lower stone and, when placed between the two stones, becomes ground, while the flour gets out from the stones and reaches the chest through the flour channel."

Jost writes that the observer of this operation experiences extraordinary sensations, as “the mill devices, the foamy water falling with tremendous rumble, and the rotating waterwheel often were the subject of interest and admiration, although they sometimes evoked fear with their mysterious nature.” The miller could regulate the space between the millstones with a special bolt, which affected the grade of the flour. When the milling was completed, the miller stopped the waterwheel with a gate.

The milling time depended on the grade of milling. For instance, according to the Reychmans, a tub (Polish: korzec, measure unit) of oats (about 72 litres) for pies was milled within 24 hours, and for the pig feed (coarse grade), within 6 hours.

The old village mills were often gradually improved upon. The old wooden mills powered with a waterwheel were replaced by more modern roller mills with a greater milling capacity. The Reychmans quote after Jost that in the old mills the maximum capacity amounted to several dozen kilograms per hour, while the modern factory milling sets could process even 200-300 kg per hour.
Clay bowl Orava Ethnographic Park Museum in Zubrzyca Górna (Muzeum – Orawski Park Etnograficzny w Żubrzycy Górnej)

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Clay pot Aleksander Kłosiński Museum in Kęty (Muzeum im. A. Kłosińskiego w Kętach)

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Today, potters are usually granted the status of a folk artist, a craftsman practising a historical folk craft: working at the potter’s wheel and heating clay wares in traditional potter’s kilns by burning wood. Some of them make their workshops available as museums, offer lessons to children and teenagers, and participate in folk art fairs and presentations of object-forming at a potter's wheel.

Until recently the pottery workshops catered to the needs of the village inhabitants because clay vessels were commonly used. At present, mass production takes place in factories that make serial products cast in moulds at the so-called stamp, and fired in electric stoves.

As Stanisław Matyasik, a potter from Rybna near Krakow reminisces, even in the 1950s his mother served dinner in clay bowls, and half-litre clay cups with one handle were used for drinking. In the kitchen there were also other clay vessels, such as pitchers and vats for water, colanders for straining, salt cellars, etc.

The secrets of the potter’s occupation were usually handed down from father to son. In the past, in the houses of some potters, a potter’s wheel (one or two) stood right in the living room; today it is housed in special rooms for clay processing, e.g., on the ground floor of the residential building.

A potter started his work by stocking the workshop with the right flameproof clay that often had to be transported from far-off places. The potters from Rybna and Brodły near Alwernia partially made use of the local deposits of flameproof clay present in the area between Grójec and Mirów. This clay was white or yellowish, as well as red in the Mirów vicinity. By 1950 the Stella mine operated in Grójec, where clay was excavated, and later the local potters brought it from Nowe Brzesko as well. In the winter, clay matured outside and then, when the frost subsided, it was subject to defrosting processes.

In the potter's workshop the potter treated the defrosted clay with a roller four times, and then kneaded it into pieces and formed a ball.

The prepared clay ball of an appropriate size was placed on a wheel-head, the top wheel of the foot-powered turntable (potter’s wheel) known in the Krakow vicinity as a siajba. He moved the lower wheel (the so-called spodzień), which in turn rotated the upper wheel of the turntable. He held the clay with his hands in order to shape it into the intended vessel. He used various jaggers to press the pattern, usually geometric, but also floral in other areas, and cut the bottom of the vessel with a string as the vessel was still being turned at the wheel. Then he covered the vessel with enamel or glaze.

In the spring, most often in May, the potter started the firing which is the last production stage. The finished vessels were placed in the pottery kiln placed in a specially built, high wooden shed in the vicinity of residential and farm buildings. A typical pottery kiln in the vicinity of Krakow that can still be seen today is a vertical kiln without grate in the shape of an open cone. Inside the kiln the clay vessels were laid at the walls, one on top of the other, with the number ranging from 1,000 to 12,000 pieces. The kiln walls featured three holes to which the potter inserted wood. After being heated the kiln reached a temperature of 1,000 degrees. The fired vessels cooled off in the kiln, but some of them did not withstand such high temperature and cracked.

Pottery workshops were often established in areas where local deposits of flameproof clay were accessible, which fostered the development of pottery centres. As Anna and Adam Bartosz write, at the end of the 19th century there were 22 pottery centres in the Tarnów region, and each of them had several, or a dozen or so independent workshops. The centres in Ruda Kameralna and Radłowo survived the longest in this area. Other pottery centres of some repute included those in Rabka, Nowy Targ, Skomielna Biała; and in the Krakow vicinity, Brodły, Zalas and Alwernia, where the few remaining potters are still actually working.


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Elżbieta Porębska-Kubik – graduate of the Department of Slavonic Ethnography at the Jagiellonian University, post-graduate studies at the Institute of History at the Jagiellonian University, pedagogical qualifications earned at the Teacher Training Centre of the Jagiellonian University. Specialist in the field of folk culture, customs, folk art and folklore; organiser, consultant, juror, researcher, author of studies.
Numerous travels through former Yugoslavia with the JU students’ Folk Enthusiasts Club founded by Dr Zdzisław Wagner at the Institute of Slavonic Studies.
She cooperates with the Malopolska Institute of Culture in Krakow under the Skarabeusz programme, and deals, among other things, with local promotional publications. Enthusiast of the Babia Góra area.

Projekt graficzny i wykonanie:
Dagmara Berska, Parastudio, Łukasz Wiśniewski, CC-BY 3.0 PL

Author: Elżbieta Porębska-Kubik, ⓒ all rights reserved MIK (2013)