Text and images excerpt from the catalog “Old crafts in Serbia”
Author: Marko Stojanović M.A.
VRNDELJ AS STATUS SYMBOL
“The other two do not wait for the third one.”
(Riddle – wheels)
The unstable state-administrative and existential status of the majority of the population of Serbia prior to uprisings and basic elements of statehood in the early part of the 19th century were most certainly inadequate for any long-term planning and development of self-contained rural households. At the same time, such a status of the large percentageof the agriculture- oriented population, influenced the fact that the necessary craft activities for daily functioning of the self-sufficient rural economy were generally performed as a secondary profession of rural craftsmen, who primarily made and repaired tools for themselves, and then for the local community. In such a context, and speaking about conditions of passenger and cargo traffic and the transfer of goods – also mostly of the rural population – at the time of the first government of Prince Milos, it should be stated that “due to the (…) state of roads, it was impossible to travel by foot or on a horse almost anywhere in the country.” Similarly, in favor of such a state of needs and markets, it should be noted that in the inaccessible, mountainous and hilly parts of Serbia until recently, capable villagers themselves made primitive vehicles with solid-disk wheels (one of the terms is for such a vehicle is “vrndelj“), used for various commercial purposes.
The accelerated development and the slow but inevitable process of national independence contributed to the fact that the village craftsmen often engaged in independent craft activities as their primary source of income. Wheelwrights primarily made wooden parts for animal-drawn vehicles, but they also added the necessary pieces of metal (iron) for the final appearance and function. These, for example, included, according to folk terminology, “trap“ (undercarriage), “lotre“ (ladder), “levca“ (stake brace) and “saraga“ (skilvings), the parts for the safe transportation of miscellaneous cargo, the steering control gear and, being particularly demanding in terms of production, the wheels, which are difficult to make and to a certain extent may be considered to be separate craft products. Since the entire vehicle was made with, from today’s standpoint, primitive tools, the folk, unscientific and experiential understanding of engineering became particularly evident. In addition, high accuracy was necessary to calculate the internal and external circumferences of the wheel, based on the circle drawn with a pencil and a rope, and then make spokes, which were supporting elements essential, among other things, to the functionality of the vehicle. One of the wheelwrighting craft traditions differentiates two types of wheels for animal-drawn and passenger vehicles, the former being made with twelve, and the latter with sixteen spokes, usually of acacia and ash wood. In regard to the type of wood from which vehicles were made, ash, elm and acacia were often used, depending on the part to be made. For example, spokes and hubs were made from acacia wood, ash wood was used for felloes and axles, etc. In addition to vehicles, wheelwrights also made accessories, including yokes for ox-towing, bars and wheelbarrows for carrying small loads in the house. They made wooden plow beams holding iron plowshares, as well as frames for harrows with incorporated iron spikes. Generally, they worked to order, often within the barter exchange, but they sold their products at fairs and in the markets.
The process of becoming independent as a state and, consequently, increased economic development influenced Serbia to make a turn towards Europe to a more significant extent and the changes in various domains of the culture of living. Following the then modern trends in the development of means of transportation, apart from work vehicles, primarily ox-drawn wagons, wheelwrights started paying attention to the market demand for vehicles solely intended for passenger transport. They were almost to the present day represented primarily by gigs and carriages, which was reflected, in addition to significant shifts in the craft itself and the need to master the technology and design of those more luxurious models, in their socio-cultural use functioning as a status symbol. That the emphasis was laid on the status of owners of luxurious models of passenger vehicles was indicated by the fact that these were drawn by horses, unlike wagons drawn mainly by oxen. Likewise, production of passenger- and of work-vehicles separated the status of wheelwrights’ workshops in towns intended for urban population from those that principally met economic needs of the rural population. Changes and improvement of the wheelwright’s craft were indirect indicators of the overall progress in the socio-cultural terms.
When the development of the wheelwright’s craft is viewed in the technical domain, the technological leap from the make of simpler models to the demanding and better quality ones included a change from wooden vehicles to the combinedones, made from wood and metal. At the same time, it can be easily noted that this change in production of wheelwrighting products introduced numerous technological processes and tools that can be considered as common to at least another two crafts: blacksmithing – for iron parts, and carpentry. Broadly speaking, such trade parallels can be viewed as indicators of comprehensive processes of cultural influences and interconnections. Considering that the Germans, being, among other things, holders of the Central European craft traditions, were systematically relocated to Vojvodina back in the 18th century, they brought new crafts including carpentry and wheelwrighting -and modern technological processes. By contrast, holders of the Balkan craft traditions in the same area were the Serbs, with the significant influence of the Oriental cultural circle and crafts such as blacksmithing, horseshoeing and the like. Bearing in mind that craft innovations arrived in Serbia of that time precisely from the cultural circle of Central Europe, from the region of Vojvodina via the Sava and Danube, it is safe to speak of the cultural transfer through the production of wheelwrighting products – animal-drawn and passenger vehicles, whose basic components were generally made from wood, while the metal ones were used for reinforcement and decoration – which also indicates that the group of similar crafted products clearly shows that implementation of the European technical knowledge, modern at the time, overlapped with the Oriental tradition of metal processing, which often reached its maximum in ornamentation as an expression of aesthetic categories.
The obvious fact – that the technical-technological and general cultural development of the early part of the 20th century led to a change in the economic structure of the population, which, after World War Two, culminated in the industrialization and mass migration from the villages to the cities – impacted the slow disappearance of the wheelwrighting craft. Workshops continued to work by inertia and with no training of new masters, so that today it is mostly enthusiasts who engage in wheelwrighting as in a secondary profession or hobby and most often handle special orders only.
The fact that needs for wheelwrighting products die out indicates that animal-drawn vehicles have gone from being an inevitable economic and transportation means in traditional communities to the status of sporadic and secondary employment, while, on the other hand, passenger vehicles originally significantly increased the speed and comfort of travel, and then continued to exist as status symbols in rural and urban areas. The prolonged use of more luxurious models, along with the simultaneous existence of cars, can be seen as an expression of nostalgia and a symbolic return to traditional values. It is exactly why in modern conditions, the revitalization of the wheelwrighting craft could be discussed primarily within the various concepts of cultural-ethnic and rural tourism, first with production of small series of carriages, and with the aim to expand the tourist offer in the revived environments, outdoor museums and tourist events.