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Traditional Manufacturing of Children’s Wooden Toys in Hrvatsko Zagorje

Children's toys are an important segment in the development of every individual. Besides their educational role, they also stimulate imagination and form a child's personality.Wooden children’s toys are recognizable traditional products of Hrvatsko zagorje with a long history. Precisely in this area, a peculiar production of toys was developed in the 19th century and it has been preserved in some villages such as Laz, Stubica, Tugonica and Marija Bistrica.

From very simple reed toys, the assortment widened so that, at times, one hundred and twenty different toys were produced. The method of their production was passed on from generation to generation in some families and has been kept to this day. The peculiarity is that they are handmade by men and mostly painted by women. There can never be two completely identical toys since each one is handmade. The material used is soft wood from the area, willow, lime, beech and maple that craftsmen hew after drying and then cut and shape it with the help of wooden or cardboard models. In painting they use eco paint and their base colours are usually red, yellow or blue. They paint the toys with floral and geometrical ornaments. Today, about fifty types of toys are made, ranging from various reeds, tamburitzas, animal toys and objects of common use.

The traditional wooden toys are still being made in Hrvatsko zagorje region which encompasses the County of Krapina-Zagorje and its South-Eastern part. The production is most developed in the following villages: Laz Stubički, Laz Bistrički, Tugonica, Gornja Stubica, Turnišče, Marija Bistrica.

The production of children’s toys in the area of Hrvatsko zagorje refers strictly to the area around Marija Bistrica and Stubica and the concentration of manufacturers is especially high in the area called Laz with villages Laz Stubički and Laz Bistrički, as well as the villages in Marija Bistrica municipality. They are situated on the northeast slopes of Mountain Medvednica in the eastern part of Hrvatsko zagorje, the mountain chain of Medvednica – Kalničko gorje, in the micro region of Central Croatia, 7 km south of Marija Bistrica. In the same area there is also Tugonica village, situated in the valley of River Bistrica in the southeast part of Hrvatsko zagorje, in the micro region of Krapina Valley in Central Croatia, 3 km northwest of Marija Bistrica. Turnišče is a village in the Municipality of Konjščina. It is situated in the southeast part of Hrvatsko zagorje, in the micro region of Krapina Valley in Central Croatia, 3 km northwest of Konjščina, and Gornja Stubica is a village in the municipality with the same name. It is situated in the southern part of Hrvatsko zagorje, in the micro region of Krapina Valley in Central Croatia, 15 km southwest of Marija Bistrica.

Children's toys that were made or are still made in the villages around Marija Bistrica and Stubica belong to rich traditional culture and history preserved to this day. These villages have preserved the traditional method of manufacturing and decorating toys and are the only places where children's toys, almost identical to those made one hundred or more years ago, have been produced without interruption.

There are only three places in Croatia where the inhabitants engaged in the manufacture of children's toys in an organized way and in great numbers - Hrvatsko zagorje, the Prigorje area village of Vidovec and village Zelovo in Dalmatian hinterland. While the production in Vidovec and Zelovo stagnated and finally completely died out, in Hrvatsko zagorje it grew. Their toys became recognized throughout Croatia, and even wider, they were sold in many parts of the world in the 1950s thanks to organized production and distribution thus becoming an inevitable element of Croatian popular culture. From the beginning they were made by wood carvers, self-taught habitants of villages Bistrički Laz, Stubički Laz, Gornja Stubica, Tugonica, Turnišće and Marija Bistrica.

These are all villages on the pilgrims' route to the international Marian shrine of Our Lady of the Snow in Marija Bistrica, where pilgrims come walking in prayer. It is understandable that in these villages, where life was hard in the 19th century, families developed a manufacturing brand, which helped them survive. More apt men carved wood that was surrounding them since that area has plenty of forests. They made reeds called žveglice, at first very simple jedinke (a whistle with one pipe) and dvojnice (a whistle with two pipes) that they painted yellow or decorated by scorching the wooden surface and thus making strips on the instrument. Later the range of reeds increased, so they were made in the shape of a rooster kokotiček, bird ftiček, fish, hammer kladivac, pistol repetirka, violoncello bajsek, trumpet trubentica and painted in bright, mostly red colours to which they applied multicoloured stripes.

An interesting reed, as much as half a meter long, had two applications - it was used as an aid to walking to the Shrine, it was called batina sa sekiricom, and it was a toy since on the way back home grown-ups gave it to children to play on, since the top of the stick had a carved reed shape. A toy called bird or butterfly klepetaljka also appeared. It had wings that flap while a child runs it using a stick and wheels that are attached to it. It is coloured red, yellow and blue with applied plant or geometrical ornaments. Since these villages were poor and the market showed interest for their reeds, the assortment was widened.

The toys were made by men and mostly painted by women. It must be pointed out that each of their toys is and was an almost unique example precisely due to painting since each one is handmade - painted, as they say, from their head, i.e. based on the artist's inspiration of the moment. They made more than one hundred and twenty motifs, while today they are making around fifty. Toys are made from beech, lime, maple and willow wood that is carved after drying and treated with a special tool for cutting and shaping using wooden or cardboard models. They use the same tools as in ancient times – sharp knives, plane, and štruk – for gouging, and a wooden bench on which they work. Today, in making some parts of a toy, they also use powered saws to get the desired shape of wood faster and easier.

They mostly make horses of different sizes, which they paint black and decorate with red and white. They have adapted to the contemporary laws on the use of ecological dyes not harmful to children, for whom the toys are intended. Ideas, motifs and ornaments have been taken from the surrounding nature or everyday life, so they made horse carts, one-horse carriage, carriage and pair, four-horse carriage, milkman's horse cart and hay cart, ox-drawn cart, a donkey.

They also adapted to urban children and introduced motifs such as cars, trucks, airplanes, trains or trams. The production of interesting children's furniture, tables, chairs, wardrobes, beds and cradles in various sizes adapted to contemporary dolls has been preserved till present times, with some interesting modifications, as well as rifljača (washboard), a predecessor of modern washing machine. Also interesting are moveable toys that can be moved with the help of wheels and/or stick which is attached to the body of the toy. In addition to the butterfly, there are also dancers that are spinning and dancing, a merry-go-round ringišpil, jumping horses, little horse with attached wooden gear wheel to which a wooden little plank on the horse creates resistance thus making noise. Musical instrument tamburitza in different sizes but smaller than normal, is mostly painted in yellow with red, green and black plant ornaments. They go through all phases of instrument tuning and still have an important role as first musical education of rural children.

Although the production of traditional children's toys is stagnant due to many modern, industrial toys, it has, nevertheless, been preserved in Croatia retaining its originality and specificity – such as manual production, diversity and a great number of models and rich ornamentation. An important role in their preservation is played by the possibility of their market distribution. Sale at parish fairs, markets and specialized shops has been kept as a tradition. An important role in safeguarding also belongs to museums where exhibitions and educational workshops are held by master wood carvers and various traditional events where a great number of visitors can directly communicate with the exponents of traditional skills, get to know more about the production of toys and take them home, not only as a toy but also as a souvenir.

Author of text: Iris Biškupić-Bašić
Photographers: Kristijan Bezjak, Iris Biškupić-Bašić, Vid Barac

(c) Ministry of Culture of the Republic Croatia – www.min-kulture.hr

(D.H., 05.02.2009)