The Tinkers of Slovakia

Artisans of Eastern Europe preserve a centuries-old craft in the face of growing technology.

text and photographs by Jacqueline Ruyak

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Legend has it that Slovak tinkers once constructed a bridge of silver wire that spanned the Danube. Though this particular legend holds no basis in fact, it does suggest the high regard in which tinkers and their remarkable skills were once held. Mention tinkers nowadays, however, and many people think of nomadic menders of pots and pans. Traveling though they were, tinkers were also highly skilled artisans who created from wire and tin an astounding variety of utilitarian and decorative goods.

“You undoubtedly have at least five things in your kitchen that were once made by Slovak tinkers,” master tinker Ladislav Jurovaty, a rangy, attractive man in his mid-70, tells me. “Whisks, sieves, strainers, trivets, baskets, trays, ladles, skewers, cake tins, baking forms and cookie tins and cutters were just some of the many things that tinkers made.”

It is mid-June and Jurovaty is at the Povazske Museum in Zilina, Slovakia. Housed in Budatin Castle, a renovated castle on the outskirts of town, the museum holds a collection of some 1,200 pieces of tinker wares, tools, wires, documents and photographs, including a life-size figure of a tinker and an entire small-scale Slovak village. This June weekend, about 40 tinkers from both the Slovak and Czech Republics have gathered at Budatin Castle for its annual tinker symposium. First held in 1992, the symposium strives to preserve and promote the tinker craft. It is a craft long in danger of disappearing, along with its remaining old-time practitioners.

Zilina is in northwestern Slovakia, near one of the two regions where most of Slovakia tinkers were born. The other, in the northeastern region of Spis, has a short tinkering history; little is known about the tinkers in that area. In northwestern Slovakia, though, an area of about 150 villages gave birth to most of the tinkers who for centuries traveled the world, practicing their craft. In fact, the region came to be known as Drotaria, or Tinker Country, from drotar, Slovak for tinker.

Two things contributed to this impoverished mountainous region becoming the cradle of the tinker trade: a terrain unfavorable to agriculture and a proximity to Silesia, with its iron works and wiredrawing mills. In the late 15th century, wire in this region was already being put to new use.

At that time, Jurovaty explains, workers in the iron works and mines carried their daily meals in ceramic pots. Because these vessels often broke, workers bound the pots in wire nets to hold them together. The nets also kept broken pot pieces together for easy mending. This simple technique was indeed the birth of the tinker craft.

The early tinkers fashioned the same wire nets for family, friends, neighbors and villagers. Soon they were traveling from village to village, taking orders for many wire products, but especially for mousetraps.

Mousetraps, notes writer Vladimir Ferko, himself a tinker, were an economic leap forward for tinkers. For centuries, rodent traps were a mainstay of the tinker trade, which continued to spread as tinkering skills developed. Soon Slovak tinkers were traveling throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire. One story says that to celebrate the birth of Joseph II, tinkers gave Empress Maria Theresa a wire cradle so artfully crafted that, given one push, the cradle would rock forever. In gratitude, the Empress granted tinkers the right to travel freely throughout the empire.

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Tags: Slovakia Central Europe