What was the spoon rack for and what were the favourite patterns of Podhale wood carvers?

The spoon rack was one of the elements of the traditional furnishing of a Podhale cottage. It usually hung between the entrance door from the hall and the dish shelf in the black room, which was called thus because of the colour of the smoked walls. This room catered to the everyday life of a highlanders’ family; it served as a bedroom, kitchen, workshop and storage for all kinds of farm equipment and tools. A spoon rack, or several spoon racks in wealthier households, was also hung in the white room, which served as a place for meetings and family celebrations. Therefore, in the black room there was usually one spoon rack for everyday use, and in the white room there were several spoon racks with new spoons so that there would always be a sufficient number of spoons for the more numerous guest groups like wedding guests, and so that there would be no need to borrow spoons from the neighbours.
Similar to other wooden equipment, everyday use spoon racks were made by nearly all men in the Podhale region. Those less talented with wood processing could order them from carpenters and joiners dealing also with wood carvings. The spoon rack was often inherited from ancestors. Sometimes a boy offered a beautifully ornamented spoon rack made by himself to a girl whom he desired to become his wife, which was the expression of his feelings and marriage intentions.
Spoon racks were made mainly of sycamore maple wood, decoratively carved and sometimes painted. The enormous variety and richness of ornaments dominated by geometrical and plant motifs and open-work indents caused that, apart from their basic functional use, the spoon racks were also assigned an aesthetic function in a highlanders' cottage.
A typical Podhale spoon rack consisted of a horizontal plank, known as a base, with cut out holes for spoons and a second plank covering the base from the front and placed at a straight angle to it. Frequently, there was also a hanging fixture attached vertically to the base or the base was extended on the sides to form the so-called lugs where nails were hammered in to attach the spoon rack to a wall. The front and hanging fixtures of Podhale spoon racks were always decorated with geometrical and plant ornaments carved with a knife or chisel (the highlanders called them cyfrowane), while the base was not decorated as it performed a utility function.
Most spoon racks were wholly or partly made from sycamore maple wood. The spoon racks made of two or three types of wood featured usually sycamore maple wood for the carved fronts and hanging fixtures, and beech, ash or spruce wood for the bases. The wooden pegs linking the spoon racks’ front and base were made of yew-tree, beech, sycamore maple and ash wood.
Podhale spoon racks varied in length (sometimes they even reached 100 cm) and the number of holes for spoons (from several to several dozen). These holes were mostly round, and placed in one, two, or even three rows opposite to one another or alternately. The hanging fixtures of spoon racks had various forms, starting from a simple circle to more original forms like a two-headed eagle, shrine, or heart-shaped ornament known as a parzenica.
The geometrical motifs are most commonly used in Podhale ornaments and, therefore, they also dominated the carved ornaments of spoon racks. The geometrical ornament was comprised usually of six-point stars inscribed in a circle, known as rosettes, indents and a heart-shaped motif of a parzenica. The spoon racks often featured an open-work decoration, such as cut-through circles, arches and semicircles, hearts, triangles, crosses and windows shaped as rectangles and shrines. The open-work cuts generally appeared along the top edge, and sometimes the bottom edge, of the spoon rack front. Plant ornaments were less common in the decoration of spoon racks. These were dominated by the styled chalice-shaped flower, the so-called leluja, while branches with leaves (grooves) or needles (known as cetyna, jedliczka) were less common, and a corn ear or ground pine appeared quite sporadically. Apart from the geometrical and plant motifs, spoon rack ornaments also featured some symbolical motifs, such as a cross in various forms, a chalice, the Host and the IHS monogram. Individual decorative elements were combined differently on the surface of spoon racks to form various stripe ornaments or a symmetrical central system of decorations. Some zoomorphic motifs appeared only on the hanging fixtures of spoon racks, e.g., horse heads cut at the sides of the hanging fixture, or small bird figures at the end of the hanging fixture.
The Podhale wood carvers adorned the spoon racks with a straight sharp-edged clasp knife and then later on with a chisel since the end of the 19th century. Other tools used for ornamentation were a pair of compasses and a drill. They carved the surface of spoon racks delicately making shallow indents to the wood, which allowed them to achieve such a subtle ornament. It is worth adding that the beautifully decorated spoon racks were hung in highlanders’ cottages in the white rooms. The everyday use spoon racks from the black rooms were simpler and less decorative.

Elaborated by Zofia Rak (The Dr. Tytus Chałubiński Tatra Museum in Zakopane), © all rights reserved

See the spoon rack from the Tatra Museum in the collection from Małopolska’s Virtual Museums.
See also spoons from Cecylia Chrzanowska’s collection from the Ethnographic Museum in Kraków in the collection from Małopolska’s Virtual Museums.