Jan Oprocha's World of Toys
In the 19th century and up to the mid-20th century, Kraków was a major centre of the folk toy industry. This was because during winter (when bricklaying ceased), the masons of the suburbs of Kraków: Zwierzyniec, Krowodrza, Czarna Wieś, Ludwinów and Podgórze (which was a separate town until 1915) could earn extra money by building and selling cribs, as well as going carolling with puppet nativity scenes. They were also engaged in the production of popular toys to be later sold during annual spring fairs.
One of the few artists creating wooden toys in Kraków known by name is the creator of The Lajkonik Parade, Jan Oprocha, born in 1858. He created his works up to the start of World War II. He made not only figures of Jews, but also other figures typical of Kraków and its suburbs, seen in various situations. His toys, which have been preserved in the collection of the Ethnographic Museum in Kraków, are easily recognisable because of his distinctive and unique style. All of them are slightly grotesque, with rounded shapes and chubby faces, which may not always make one laugh, but at least it brings a smile to the faces of people seeing them. Oprocha was the author of many figures representing professions and activities today long forgotten, for example a wandering herb trader, a wandering shoe trader, a dog catcher on a wagon pulled by horses. In his toys, he also presented funny situations such as: A carrier with a lady in the boat or A drunkard with a bottle on a swing. The artist also depicted one of the games popular in Rękawka up to the 1950s. With the pulling of a string, a wooden figure of a boy climbs up a rod imitating a pole in order to win the longed-for prize, as on the top of the rod there are shoes, sausages and a bottle. It must be remembered that these were mass-produced toys intended for sale. Figurines, often repeatable, composed in different groups or independent, were placed on stands. Under their shoes or feet they had springs, so they could move, sway or bounce. This usage of springs in the construction of wooden figurines, depicting not only Jews, is a characteristic feature of the toys made in Kraków by masons. The same can be said about the stands on which the figurines were set, which were painted green, and sometimes decorated with white, yellow or pink borders.
Jan Oprocha’s name and work were carried on by his son until the late 1970s. His figures were similar in style, but they didn’t have the same grace as those made by his father. In the collection of the Ethnographic Museum in Kraków, the Lajkonik procession made by Jan Oprocha Jr. can be found, in the form of an arrangement placed on a stand without wheels, with figures fastened on springs, as well as the numerous figures of Jews, scythe bearers, a pair of Kraków citizens and a policeman with a dog.
More information on the toys of Kraków can be found in: Małgorzata Oleszkiewicz, Grażyna Pyla, Czar zabawek krakowskich [The charm of the toys of Kraków], Muzeum Etnograficzne im. Seweryna Udzieli w Krakowie (The Seweryn Udziela Ethnographic Museum in Kraków), Kraków 2007.
Elaborated by Małgorzata Oleszkiewicz (The Seweryn Udziela Ethnographic Museum in Kraków),© all rights reserved