Text and images excerpt from the catalog “Old crafts in Serbia”
Author: Irena Gvozdenović
IT IS HARDER TO TIN THAN TO DRINK
When everyone shouts: “You are drunk!”, lie down even if you are not.
Coppersmith’s trade, production of dishes and objects of copper, is one of the oldest crafts in this country – it exists for more than five centuries. The name “kazandzija” (coppersmith) stems from the Turkish word kazan (cauldron), and it points to the main container that coppersmiths produce.
Since prehistoric times men has used copper to make tools and weapons and a whole period in the development of civilization is called the Copper Age. Persia and India, rich in the ore, are considered the homelands of copper dishes. Coppersmithing has been known since ancient times and nowhere has it been brought to perfection like there.
Copper dishes and the tinning were mentioned for the first time by Greek philosopher Theophrastus in the 3nd century BC. The Greeks learnt about the production and use of copper dishes from the Persians, while the Romans became familiar with these dishes thanks to the Greeks. However, the production and use of copper vessels were not accepted in Europe, where crockery was used through the Middle Ages. The Balkans, where the copper dishes were brought by the Turks, was the only part of Europe where these dishes were produced and used. The oldest mention of coppersmiths dates back to the 16th century – in 1511, 135 pieces of sahan (a shallow, flat-bottomed dish), produced by coppersmiths in Sarajevo, were exported from Sarajevo to Dubrovnik. The first coppersmiths were the Turks, and eventually, this trade was taken over by the local population.
In the past coppersmith’ products were diverse:
- boilers, cauldrons and kettles;
- kitchen utensils: various types of pots and pans, casseroles, frying-pans, flagons for drinking water;
- hygiene products: washbasins, barber washbowls, water pots, pans;
- objects of everyday use: braziers, coffee pots, coffee and sugar boxes, ewers;
- sacral objects: patens, censers, cups, kettles for the baptistery.
The coppersmiths’ craft reached its peak in the late 19th and the early 20th century because their products were used most at the time. Copper dishes were in wide use both in urban and in rural areas, where food could be prepared in copper dishes on the open fire due to high durability. Dishes and objects of copper were used in wealthy urban homes for decoration of the main and side rooms. In addition to practical, copper dishes had a decorative function. Many objects were richly decorated with engraving and embossing techniques. Crafts and craft guilds developed in the Balkans during the Turkish feudal rule. The coppersmiths’ guild was the first where craftsmen also became merchants and traded in copper, tin, and all coppersmithing products.
The main raw materials in coppersmiths’ craft are copper, tin and sal ammoniac, as well as charcoal and cotton, but a forge where copper melts is the most important. Since the largest number of coppersmiths’ products were dishes for food and drinks, and copper is prone to oxidation due to which a toxic metal patina is formed, these containers had to be tinned, and that called for tin. Therefore, coppersmiths engaged in tinning as well. The most important tools in a coppersmith’s workshop were anvil, a pair of bellows to blow air into a fire, wooden and metal hammers, coppersmith’s pliers, rasps and scissors. Copper was delivered in a raw state and melted in furnaces. Then, several workers stretched it into sheets with heavy hammers on the anvil. The production of a particular object continued from there.
Coppersmithing was very difficult craft. Coppersmiths had to be very fast because they worked with fire.
In addition to masters, apprentices worked in coppersmiths’ workshops as well. Their service lasted six or more years and they mostly came from families of craftsmen. They studied mainly by looking, without receiving specific instructions. It was believed that a good master coppersmith could make up to twenty pans in a day. Only after making pans could an apprentice make a cauldron, kettle, water pot, and subsequently take the exam for journeyman.
Many masters used to hide their craft skills from others, particularly those who were engaged in tailoring. They shared the secrets of their craft only with their heirs. The mode of a coppersmith’s work was mainly individual, while it was collective only when producing large items, such as cauldrons, boilers, etc. There were families that were in this craft for two hundred years. Parts of a city or streets were named by coppersmiths who worked here, for example, Coppersmiths’ Alley.
In the modern era, in addition to the aforementioned hand tools, various machines are used in the coppersmiths’ workshops.
In the past, coppersmiths made dishes for food and drinks, from the casserole for baking pies and coffee pots to kettles, as well as household items, but such coppersmiths no longer exist. Large trade centers were: Pirot, Nis, and Prizren.
Nowadays, these artisans are solely engaged in the production of brandy stills, cauldrons for melting of fat and laundry washing, sprinklers for vineyards, kettles for fish soup. They also do various repairs. They still exist in Serbian cities such as Belgrade, Valjevo, Nis, Novi Sad, Leskovac and Vranje, and there are some even in villages.
A well-known coppersmith from Novi Sad, who makes brandy stills and exports them worldwide, and is currently producing the batch for Portugal, says: “It is much harder to make the stills than to enjoy brandy. Forging of a 100liter caldron requires fifteen days of hard labor and great skills. One must be a locksmith, tinsmith, lathe operator, and a bit of a sculptor.”
The reasons that the coppersmithing as well as many other crafts in Serbia are brought to ruin are multiple, and the process of disintegration of our old artisan culture has commenced a long time before and it still continues.
The liberation from the Turkish feudal rule also led to a change in the structure of the urban population and reorientation of life of the Serbs, so that the demand for copper dishes decreased. Industrialization and modernization had a great impact – articles produced in factories appeared between the two World Wars – and it all led to deterioration and disappearance of the coppersmithing and many other crafts.
Old crafts should be preserved and revitalized as well as our old artisan culture, because there is no better coffee than that prepared in a copper coffee pot and there is no better brandy than the homemade one prepared in a still.