From ONE Magazine

The Tinkers of Slovakia

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.

Weaving, twisting or looping plain iron or zinc-coated wire, tinkers used a “cold” process, without welding or soldering, to form their wares. With their toolboxes on their backs, Slovak tinkers traveled all over Europe, wiring farm implements, mending broken pottery and porcelain pipes as well as tin kitchen utensils. Among the items crafted – besides mousetraps – were pipe cleaners, muzzles for cattle, window screens, wire gratings and potato mashers.

In the early 19th century some 10,000 men in Drotaria, about two-thirds of the male population, were tinkers. Of that number, some 4,000 could be found in Russia, where there was little competition and the language was similar to Slovak. With the onslaught of mass immigration in the mid-19th century, however, tinkers traveled to virtually every continent in the world, adapting themselves to local markets and developing even more products.

Where demand for their craft was greatest the tinkers went into business, setting up workshops and factories to produce and sell their wares. Workshops flourished in Makov, Tunisia and especially Russia: Early in the 20th century, the Moscow factory employed some 400 workers. Warsaw, Budapest, Zurich, Brussels, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Montreal and Buenos Aires were just some of the cities where tinker workshops thrived. Oddly, the two places where tinker workshops fared the least were in Slovakia and the neighboring countries of Moravia and Bohemia, where workshops often fell victim to legislation.

Tinker products were often geared to local demand, be it for wire birdcages, chandeliers, toys, frames for funeral wreaths, tailor figures or mangers for camels and goats. Items made from metal plate included teapots, samovars, lanterns and coffee roasters. In the United States, says Jurovaty, there are still about 20 workshops manufacturing birdcages today. And, adds Ferko, it was the Brodek brothers of New Jersey, two Slovak tinkers, who designed the wheeled folding shopping cart.

From making and mending simple pieces, soon Slovak tinkers were producing a wide range of practical, inexpensive and decorative wire and metal articles. Over the centuries Slovak tinkers became known for their sophisticated, utilitarian wares rich in ornamental details, drawn for the most part from Slovak folk art. These included plant and animal motifs and patterns much like those found in Slovak lacemaking.

As their skills developed, the tinker status also improved. Once considered itinerant riffraff, they became skilled artisans respected at home and abroad and earned the right to travel freely. They returned to their native villages with money, new products, and knowledge, including that of foreign languages, from their travels. Before gaining respect, however, they relied on an argot formed, for the most part, from the words of various other languages. These words were then given Slovak endings. There was, for example, habovat, from the German for “to have”; kresat, from the Russian for “to go”; and kosut (little boy) and uramka (lady) from the Hungarian.

Tinkers were an “economic, social and cultural phenomenon recognized by writers and archivists over the years,” says Ferko. Their first Slovak chronicler was Karol Guleja, who spent decades researching and writing Svet drotarov (Tinker World) in order to preserve the story of the Slovak tinkers.

Tinkering skills were passed from generation to generation; father and son often worked together. Wherever they went, tinkers kept alive the traditional Slovak customs associated with Christmas, Lent, and Easter. Tinkers from northwestern Slovakia were Latin Catholic, while those from the Spis region were usually Orthodox. Religion, writes Guleja, provided strong spiritual sustenance for the tinkers, but the topic was essentially a private matter.

Of the special customs passed among tinkers, one of the loveliest occurred when a son was born into a tinkering family. Placed on a long-handled bread board, the infant was passed through an open window of the family home as those gathered recited “Svetom moje svetom,” a felicitous wish for the baby to make the world his own. Or, as Ferko translates it, “Set out on journey, my dear.”

Even when tinkers settled abroad and set up workshops and factories, they kept in touch with their roots and continued to send money home. According to Guleja, this steady infusion of money meant a change from poverty to prosperity. Savings banks were built, better homes and improved farming techniques were developed and shops and inns were opened. The municipal government also introduced bus routes into the area.

By World War II, though, all this changed and tinkers virtually disappeared. The causes of their decline were diverse and devastating. First, there were the two world wars, with all their economic deprivations, sufferings and social upheavals. Then collectivization in Russia spelled the end of privately owned Slovak wire workshops in that country. Many shop owners were forced to return to Slovakia, where they set up shop only to go bankrupt after World War I. Though workshops survived in many parts of the world, following World War II and the introduction of mass-produced items, the few tinkers left in Slovakia had to struggle to keep their traditional skills alive.

About 40 years ago, Ladislav Jurovaty, then a young building technician, met an old tinker in the village of Dhle Pole, one of the main centers of the tinkering tradition. Fascinated by the traditional wirecraft, Jurovaty decided to study with the old master. Decades later and now retired, Jurovaty is himself a master tinker. Known for his highly decorative utilitarian objects and sculptures, he teaches a class in applied arts at the Academy of Design in Bratislava, located, coincidentally, on Drotar Street.

In 1993 he started a wirecraft workshop with his son at the Drotovna wire factory in Hlohovec, about 40 miles from Bratislava. He maintains a Web site (www.drotovna.sk), and their catalog offers handmade items such as bowls, baskets, racks, trays, ladles, napkin holders, hairpins, headbands and Christmas decorations. About 18 people are employed in the workshop; young tinkers are also trained there. Acquiring patents for designs, a costly, time-consuming process, takes up much of Jurovaty time; he worries about the threat to the newly revived craft from knock-offs from China and other parts of Asia. But, he says, his mother taught him to “cast his bread upon the waters.” This belief has served him well all his life.

Few of the tinkers at the annual symposium, which draws a mix of veterans and apprentices, men and women, make their living by wire. Several of the older tinkers, like Jurovaty and Ferko, have passed their skills to their children and grandchildren.

Some of the youngest participants, in their early teens, saw Jurovaty or other wire-workers at work and started studying soon afterward. Ladislav Fapsa, a 22-year-old conservator at the museum in Zilina, started tinkering at 15 after reading Vladimir Ferko book on the topic. Now a promising young tinker, Fapsa had his first exhibit at 17.

Early in the 20th century, tinkers started creating figures of people, animals, birds, dragons, trains, planes and other such items from wire. This use of wire in folk art, although unique at the time, has again become popular. Today tinkers use wire in a variety of ways: to make jewelry, finish glass and ceramic works, decorate Easter eggs and fashion birdcages. Yet even as some tinkers now concentrate on the more artistic applications of their craft, the strength of the tinkering tradition is still apparent in the decorative utilitarian pieces from which Slovak tinkers earned their reputation.

It is hard to say what the future holds for the resurgent craft of tinkering, but the number of young tinkers is growing.

“My son says that once you start working with wire,” remarks the elder Jurovaty, “it impossible to stop.”

At the very least, the story of Slovakia tinkers shows that the world has been wired for much longer than most of us realize.

Jacqueline Ruyak is a frequent contributor to ONE magazine.