BYGONE INNOVATION AND INGENUITY
Driving through much of rural Spain today, it’s hard to picture what it looked like before the mid-20th century. The silent streets, main squares, local fountains and fields have little left to show for their industrious past beyond the lined worn faces of the old men assembled on stone benches watching the cars pass through their village. Tourists on their way to a hiking route may stop, take a photo or two, maybe pop into the local museum, but the scythes, threshing sledges and washing boards hanging on the wall are only a superficial reminder of its rich historic traditions.
Life in the countryside was a hive of activity before the 1950s. And it was damn hard. At the beginning of the 20th century, 70% of Spain’s population lived in the countryside and 64% of them couldn’t read or write. The death rate among children under 5 years old was almost 50% and the average life expectancy in 1920 was 40 years old. By the 1950s things had improved - life expectancy had risen to 60 and children were being educated. But education and the introduction of TV opens up a world of previously unimagined possibilities and by 1970 the villages had largely emptied as people looked for a better life in the cities or overseas. Rural Spain would never be the same again.
They say it takes a village to raise a child, but it takes a village to maintain a society and keep it from falling into abject destitution. Life in the country was harsh - yes, they worked their skins to the bones, but they had all they needed to survive. Each one in the community had a job to do and a skill to share, but the social ecosystem breaks down when those skills are no longer available. When the younger generations left, so did the quality of life; buildings fell into disrepair, fields remained uncultivated, products were no longer being made, and poverty took on a whole new meaning. With the exodus of labourers went the knowledge of hundreds of skilled trades. Let’s go back and appreciate just how innovative and ingenious some of those trades were.
The pine tar maker (el pezguero)
If there’s one thing country folk know how to do well, it’s to exploit the materials available to them. Trees give their wood for fire – warmth and protection, but also to the manufacture of metal tools, tar, ash and charcoal. Trees give us furniture, sap, resin, baskets, cork, utensils, and so much more. It takes hundreds of years of trial and error, of knowledge passed down from father to son, to arrive at the expertise of a tar and charcoal maker. Both pine tar and charcoal are the result of the high temperature carbonisation of wood and an absence of oxygen. It is a fine art when done properly.
The roots of pine trees are split into small pieces along the grain so the tar resin can drain out easily when heated. The wood is placed into earthen kilns, often below ground with a board at the base to catch the viscous black pitch. The kiln must be sealed up hermetically to avoid any oxygen that could set the tar alight. The wood is left 40 hours to burn slowly and the whole process can take many days. Once extracted, the tar is crystalized and hardens into a glassy block that is sold by weight. It was an essential product before the invention of synthetic substances as a waterproof sealant on boats, roofs and ropes as well as used in soaps, for skin conditions and as a natural antiseptic.
The charcoal maker (el carbonero) also had to know how to control fire to make the charcoal which was used as a cheap source of fuel, especially when high temperatures were required. The wood, (often oak, in Spain) was piled into a conical shape with openings at the base and a hole in the top. It was then covered in damp clay or moss to prevent the entry of air. The fire was lit at the base and the whole thing was left to burn for a few days. To test whether it was ready, the carboneros would climb on top of the pile. If it was stable, it was ready – if not, they’d risk falling in. Once it was solid, brittle and porous, it was ready to be sold and used as a cooking and heating fuel in the houses or in iron and steel forges that needed to reach temperatures higher than 2000 degrees Celsius. Every 9th of August, the village of Viloria in Valladolid holds a ‘Day of the Charcoal’ which brings together the few remaining charcoal makers from nearby provinces to show visitors how the charcoal is made. There are some wonderful photos HERE that give a good idea of the process.
The pine sap collector (el resinero), as the name implies, collected the thin resiny white sap from pine trees by cutting the bark back to the tree’s capillaries. The sticky fragrant liquid drained into a small pot attached to the tree. In my last post, I mentioned how the extraction of pine sap was making a comeback in Soria as well as in many other communities where pine forests grow. It is still used today in the production of varnish, adhesives, perfumes, incense and in food additives. It is an excellent antiseptic and can be applied to burns, sores and when necessary, to stop wounds from bleeding.
The pitchfork maker (el forcaire)
Knowledge of trees and other plants was essential to ensure their correct growth and utility. The fabrication of hackberry pitchforks is a skillful example of how to control the material to produce a desired result. Pitchforks were made from the hackberry tree (Celtis australis), a flexible and hardy deciduous tree whose branches could be shaped into the tines of a fork. It took the farmer 6 years of pruning and shaping the branches before the tree could be cut. The next step was to peel the bark by charring it briefly in a hot fire of straw and wood shavings. This had to be done rapidly otherwise the wood would burn. The bark is easy to peel but he must work fast before it has a chance to cool again. The pronged branch was then left to soak in murky mossy water for a month before cleaned and left to dry two or three days. While the wood was still a little damp, it was scraped and shaped and the tines held in place by wooden moulds that created the final curved shape and spacing. After being left to fully dry for a month, the moulds could be removed, and the forks were ready for use in the fields. This video shows the process from start to finish.
The thresher maker (el briquero)
Wood and other plants were used to make brooms, ropes, jugs, bowls, furniture of all kinds, and one of the most important tools for the farmer – the threshing board. Used in countries all over the Mediterranean, the threshing board, or sledge, consisted of wooden planks attached to each other, often curved up at one end like a sledge, with small holes cut into the surface. The holes were then filled with small sharp protruding pieces of flint that acted as tiny knives, cutting into the straw and ears of wheat or other cereals, separating the grains without crushing them.
At the front of the board there was a large hook and a rope that was attached to horses, mules, oxen or donkeys that pulled the board over the cereal. Usually a person would sit or stand on the board to give it extra weight and in this way, the process of separating the grains from the straw could be done faster than by hand.
The pack saddle maker (el albardero).
Mules and donkeys were the backbone (literally) of rural Spain. Without these amazing beasts of burden, work in the country would have been hard going, if not impossible. They were used to pull and carry loads far beyond the capability of any man, and for those weights to be distributed evenly and with minimal discomfort to the animal, a well-made pack saddle was indispensable. A pack-saddle maker used the materials readily available to him which were sack cloth and straw. They were also light and durable and if made well, the pack saddle would last up to 10 years or more. The sack was shaped, sewn and stuffed with damp straw to fit like an open book over the back of the animal with a strap that went around the rump to secure it. It was important for the centre of the saddle to not be in direct contact with the mule’s back to avoid putting weight on the backbone as well as allowing the evaporation of sweat. The process took many hours and followed a strict form copied in most parts of the country. To see how these pack saddles were made, check out THIS video.
The jug maker/pitcher potter/seller - (el alfarero/botijero)
Many trades were passed down from father to son, but there were also those that were chosen as a profession and taught through apprenticeships. Potters made jugs, cups, bowls, pitchers, cooking pots and other utensils; tinsmiths made objects from tin. There were carpenters, blacksmiths, brickmakers, tile makers and even mattress makers that made mattresses with sheep and goat wool; knife grinders who went from house to house offering to sharpen your knives. Itinerant vendors made their living by travelling from village to village, farmhouse to farmhouse selling goods from charcoal, wood, brass pots, to seasonal fruit or vegetables, wine, water, honey, milk, etc, from the back of a donkey. The potters who specialised in ceramic jugs and pitchers would travel with them protected in layers of straw and like all travelling salesmen, make their presence known by whistling, singing or calling out loudly. This practice continues today with the arrival of a van selling products village to village, preceded by the loud, rather annoying, megaphone.
The water carrier (el aguador)
The pitcher sellers would also offer cold water from their jugs that acted like evaporative coolers in the long hot dry months of summer. Ceramic pottery is an excellent insulator and the water carriers that passed through the villages with their donkeys laden with two large jars or a few smaller pitchers were a welcome sight. Running water in most village homes was not common until well into the 20th century and not all villages had the luxury of a fountain. Sometimes the well ran dry and it was a long walk to the river or other water source. Water sellers sold water and made a good living from it during the summer months. While the water sellers were predominantly men, the task of water collecting fell to the women.
Which brings us to the trades that were traditionally considered women’s work. Trade is perhaps the wrong word, as it implies paid work which, with exceptions, was most often the domain of men. Women were generally expected to keep the house clean, grow and prepare the food, do the milking, raise the children, sew the clothes, wash the clothes, and help out with the seasonal sowing and harvesting in the fields. Juggling the work with several young children in tow was a 24/7 job and a woman’s work was never done - to cover all the responsibilities assigned to the women would fill another post.
Girls were taught from a very early age how to follow in their mothers’ footsteps and expected to do their share. Women were required to be thrifty and resourceful; everything found a use and purpose. Soap was made from waste products such as grease mixed with ash or soda, clothes were mended or repurposed, food was artfully extended into many meals and money was scraped together when needed.
Washerwomen (las lavanderas)
In many villages in Spain, you can still see the ‘lavadero’ – a washing fountain which consists of a continuous run of water from a fountain into a small stone pool. Women gathered together on washing day, piled up with the family’s laundry and their bars of homemade soap, and scrubbed and chatted, gossiped and beat the clothes clean. In winter, the clothes still needed to be cleaned, so the ice was broken and the bare hands plunged into the freezing water. Where there was a scarcity of water, no lavadero or when the women simply had no time to do their own laundry, they would pay a washerwoman to do it for them. There may have been the monthly whitening of the heavy linen which required a lot more work, urine and a pile of ash - and it was these washerwomen who understood the science behind a good whitening clean.
Cloth, especially linen, was expensive and had to last a long time. To prevent the inevitable yellowing, washerwomen had a few tricks up their rolled-up sleeves. Concentrated urine (the first whizz of the morning) was especially good when left outside a couple of weeks. Exposed to oxygen it becomes ammonia and an excellent bleaching product for white materials. Wood ash, which contains hydroxides of potassium (lye) was also used to keep the clothes from fading.
The women would load the donkey with dirty clothes collected from the houses, head down to the river or fountain, kneel on the wooden blocks that protected them from the water and use paddles to beat the cloth while scrubbing a bar of soap over the surface. They would fold, beat, and rinse energetically and return to the village or a place where they could heat water. The clothes were placed in a big tub or basket with holes at the base for draining. A large cloth was then laid over the clothes, and ash was piled on top of the cloth. Hot water (or cold if it’s wool or hemp) was then poured over the ash repeatedly and the run-off could be used for cleaning other products. Then, it's back down to the river to wash and rinse some more before laying the clothes out on grass or rocks to further bleach in the sun.
This was time-consuming work that was often preferable to outsource to a washerwoman when possible. These women were the true chemists of the community and it’s remarkable how much of this kind of knowledge has been forgotten. There are many more traditional trades I could talk about – enough to fill a book, but this has been a small example of the kind of ingenuity that existed before the invention of plastics and convenient modern appliances and machines. In my post on abandoned villages, I mention how people are becoming more and more interested in a simpler way of life and relearning some of the trades and skills of their ancestors. At fairs and festivals, there is sometimes an opportunity to see a few in action, or watch them in videos on the Internet but it would be wonderful if future generations of keen city folk, yearning for a life closer to nature, were to bring some of them back.
We may just see the beginning of a renaissance of resourcefulness in the Spanish village.