Rita Stäblein - Robert Moroder
AS A COTTAGE INDUSTRY
IN OLD GRÖDEN
Museum de Gherdëina
Within the German-speaking sphere of civilization, Gröden has
held an important position among areas where toy-making became
established as a cottage industry. In the areas competing with
Gröden, such as Oberammergau, Berchtesgaden, Thuringia, and the
Erzgebirge ("ore mountains"), wooden toys along with utility articles
were produced as early as in the 15th century. In Gröden, trade
developed later. Woodcarvings of outstanding artistic merit, as
documented from 1625 onwards, formed the basis for the peasant
populations' manufacture of toys as a supplementary source of income
in addition to agriculture.
It is known that already in the 17th century farmers in
Gröden had to earn extra money for any necessary acquisitions.
Among the female populations of the valley the making and selling
of lace was at that time already being pursued as a regular cottage
industry. There is mention of pieces of lace of any size as late as
1814. But as toy-making developed in the cottages, women too turned
to the financially more rewarding work of carving and painting toys,
so that by the end of the 19th century lace was being made just for
As the lacemakers went to peddle their wares themselves it is
conceivable that in the markets on their way their attention was
drawn to wooden toys which came from areas with which Gröden
subsequently went into competition. Such toys were already popular
and widely known at that time. Possibly, toys were brought into the
valley by the hawker women, and the Grödeners, who, through the
works of the wood sculptors were already familiar with handling a
carver's knife, may have begun by trying to copy some of the simpler
items. But with the realization that money could be made with this
commodity, the toy-carving trade quickly spread within the close
borders of the Gröden area. 1750 is regarded as the approximate
year when peasants in Gröden first began manufacturing toys, as
in 1788 it came to the notice of the authorities in Vienna that
Gröden's woods were being denuded of the cembra pine, a tree
growing exclusively in the higher mountain regions. An order arrived
via Innsbruck back in Gröden that in the interest of forest
conservation the number of sculptors - namely the carvers of statuary
as well as those of toys - was to be reduced from 300 to half that
number. From this order the obvious inference must be drawn that at
that time conspicuously large amounts of wood had already been used.
This in turn points to toy making, as comparatively little material
was needed for the carving of wooden sculptures, whereas the fast
production of toys required huge quantities of wood. Apparently,
according to a source from 1823, every household in Gröden, of
which there were nearly 440, was at that time engaged in woodcarving.
In 1846 it was said that 70 to 75 percent of the population were
occupied in manufacturing toys in their homes.
Likewise, 75% of 3,500 inhabitants were said to be woodcarvers in
In 1880, 90% of the Grödeners are recorded as workers in the
These are estimates, and the figures do not indicate whether the
children who helped in the industry and the women who painted the
toys are included. However, the figures do comprise the wood
sculptors whose number steadily increased from the last quarter of
the 19th century onwards, with a simultaneous decline in the number
of toy makers.
To a large extent, the Gröden toy carver followed his trade
independently. He was not subject to any regulations, nor did he
form any associations with others that could have helped organise the
craft. To the cottage industry as a whole the disadvantages of this
lack of organization are self-evident. Grödeners employed no
hired help of any kind, the work being shared within the family. Not
uncommonly, the same kind of toy was traditionally produced for
generations by one family. There were families who would carve only
horses while others produced only boats. Many confined themselves to
the making of dolls. This development resulted in tremendous speeds
of production, albeit at the loss of some refinement in the finished
article. It is nonetheless astonishing with what limited means the
subtle characteristics of the various animals were brought out. In
1807 the chronicler of Gröden, Josef Steiner, reports: "Now
every cottage livingroom looks like a busy factory; the women and
girls sit in one corner making lace; the remaining space is taken up
by the carvers who, at a speed that surprises every onlooker, fashion
figures out of wood. Normally, each worker carves only one kind of
figure. Furthermore, carving confers a certain independence on the
son, even before he reaches adulthood. As soon as he has mastered
handling the carver's knife he assumes total responsibility for his
upkeep and has to pay his father for his board, just as the latter
pays the son for his work - if indeed he does work for him".
The place of work was either your own or your father's house. The
living-room which also functioned as a dining room was panelled in
cembra pine and often fitted with carved doors and a coffered ceiling
as well as the typical domed stove with its bench in one corner.
This, too, was the room where the family worked, sitting round one of
the two sturdy tables. At every place occupied by a carver a wooden
block was fixed for the carver's knife to work against. Sawing and
drilling was done here, too, as well as sanding, glueing, and
painting. On Sundays the work-table was covered with a clean cloth.
But then, cleanliness and orderliness as far as could be achieved
stood in high regard here anyway.
Children at Work
Having numerous offspring was seen as an advantage as children
were put to work for the family from an early age.
As early as 1796 there is a mention of even women and children
being found among the most diligent carvers.
Most reports state that in the 19th century five-year-olds were
already made to work in toy production. Some sources mention
Children were given such ancillary tasks as sanding down the
finished pieces, mounting jobs like fitting and glueing the ears onto
animals, glueing the animals onto wooden bases, fastening wheels to
wheel carriages - but children performed tasks with simple machinery
as well, and it fell to them to do all the fetching and carrying.
Gradually over the years, parents instructed their children in the
more difficult skills, finishing up with fashioning those items which
the family traditionally produced.
One Gröden woman who even now carves small animals freehand
tells that in her youth she never attended any of the technical
schools that taught woodcarving in the valley. Her mother carved
sheep, and as a child the first carving job she was allowed to do was
to cut the furriness into the sheep's fleeces, until later on she
herself started carving sheep.
Tools and Machines
Usually the carvers themselves constructed the simple tools and
machines they used since they could not afford to buy them. Even in
the early 19th century it was the blacksmith and the locksmith in the
valley who made the few different knives and carving chisels. In
later times better quality tools were bought from further afield, and
pedal-driven sandingmachines replaced the sand from the stream and
the ground glass affixed with glue to leather strips. In addition,
pedaldriven drills were introduced. Small hand operated grinders
facilitated the pulverization of chalk for the priming coat of paint,
and round timber was produced to any required diameter out of squared
timber with the help of simple "beating-through" machines. These,
too, were operated by children and were an important aid in the
production of the millions of arms and legs for dolls, of the
mountains of axles for wheel carriages and vehicles and of the spokes
for wheels. The patterns often found on spokeless wheels were mostly
pressed in with a kind of small embossing wheel during the turning
process. It was only relatively late that handsaws were replaced by
The greatest impact on the development of Gröden's cottage
industry was without doubt brought about by the introduction of the
lathe. The earliest references about it date from 1846: "About 25
years ago the lathe was introduced to the great advantage", we are
told. In this context it is odd that turned articles which were known
from other toy-manufacturing centres were not produced in Gröden
until 1820. In the Erzgebirge (ore mountains) for instance,
water-powered turning-plants, each fitted with several work places,
were already in operation a century earlier. These enormously boosted
the local cottage industry, opening the way for mass production, as
In the Gr6den cottage industry, too, the advent of the lathe seems
to have resulted in abrupt changes. In 1846 - i.e. a mere 25 years
later - there are said to have been already 600 of them in the
valley. However, this number appears to be exaggerated as, in 1877,
there is mention only of 300 pedaldriven and 60 water-powered lathes.
The carvers built the earliest lathes - primitive, pedal-operated
models - themselves. Only later were the machines in part constructed
to utilize water power. Regular turners' huts were built along
watercourses, most of them on the banks of the Gröden beck. Many
of these turners' huts were owned jointly by two or three families,
and work in them was carried out to firmly fixed timetables, working
hours being divided into morning and afternoon shifts. Families for
whom the acquisition of a lathe of their own was not worthwhile, used
the machines of others on payment of a daily fee. A family that
produced rack waggons, for instance, needed a lathe just for making
the wheel and to drill the holes for their slats and the axles. Hence
half a day's use of a lathe per week sufficed for their line of
product. There is a reference from 1877 that one worker could turn
out 400 dozen simple wheels in the course of one day.
From 1902 to 1906 the valley was supplied with electricity, and
carvers who could afford it converted their machines to being powered
by electricity. However, this conversion was a generally rather slow
process because of the relatively high costs involved.
From the outset the procurement of materials for the cottage
industry proved to be a problem for the carvers, despite the
extensive forests in the Gröden area. The soft, fine-grained
wood of the cembra pine was found to be ideally suited for carving,
but as from the start of mass production around 1820 the cembra pine
stems had already to be procured at least in part, from the
The cembra pine is confined to the higher regions and needs a
growth period of around 180 years before it is ready for felling. The
carvers who used it did, however, not think of husbanding the stands
nor of reafforestation.
In 1838 cembra pines were frequently no longer available for money
in Gröden, so that carvers had to steal their supplies of wood
in the forests. Consequently, this precious carver's wood was being
used increasingly rarely in the cottage toy industry. As from the
middle of the 19th century its use was reserved exclusively for
special quality toys and partly for the production of the larger
animals. Mass products were carved and turned mainly from pinewood,
but poplar, willow, asp, maple, fir, spruce, and other woods were
Yet the fears concerning the decline of trees in Gröden that
were suitable for carving did not materialize after all. In the
absence of proper administration and husbandry of forests, it was
difficult for the authorities to gain a realistic picture of the
state of Gröden's woods. They had no clear idea of the actual
amount of wood used in the cottage industry by the carvers who, in
their poverty, could not afford to buy the necessary materials for
their trade and were driven to helping themselves in the woods. Only
in the sixties of the last century did the state forestry commission
begin to allot special quotas of wood to the carvers, introducing
strict supervision at the same time, and this measure led to an
improvement in the state of the forests.
A report dating 1877 describes how wood was procured before the
introduction of quotas: The local administration keeps to the
unreasonable principle to grant not even a single stem to the
woodworkers, either for love or for money. In fact, it refused to
sell any wood at all, even though regularized utilization and
reafforestation does, on the one hand, not harm the forests and
would, on the other hand, financially benefit the parish. The
administration justifies this attitude with the very doubtful
assumption that any sold wood would only be re-sold, and stealing
would continue, anyway. Thus the woodcarver is indeed forced to steal
- unless he wants to buy wood at a hefty price from neighbouring
communities. And stealing does go on in great measure, presumable at
an annual rate of 2000 stems. As a rule the night is being used for
this (enterprise). A man will walk for half to half to three quarters
of an hour to the forest, then fell the tree that appears suitable
and strip it of its branches. The tree feller wraps his jacket around
the stem while using saw and axe, in order to dampen their sound.
After that, in Summer, the stem is stripped of its bark for easier
transportation by means of a rope with which it is dragged along. At
times it is rolled forward in order to obliterate the trail. All this
is bound with great exertion and hardship , of course, besides the
constant fear of being caught by the warden as an offender against
the forest laws or of the unpleasant surprise of having one's house
searched and being severely punished. These unnatural conditions put
the municipal council itself into a state of unlawfulness.
Wholesalers, as members of the council, revile the offenders in
public while urging them at home in their offices to deliver ever
more goods, in the full knowledge that the material for these is
being misappropriated from the municipal forests.
The situation settled down only when, at the turn of the century,
it became clear that fears about Gröden's cottage toy industry
dying through lack of wood, had been unfounded.
The Colouring of Toys
The colouring of toys developed in line with their manufacture.
Roughly at the time when lathes were first introduced, producers in
Gröden started painting their wares. Up to then part of the
articles were carried from the valley to Oberammergau (Bavaria) where
they were painted and resold. It has proved impossible to this day to
discover how the carvers in Gröden managed to penetrate the
closely guarded secret of the composition of paints and lacquers. But
at the start of mass production around 1820, toy manufacturers began
to paint part of their wares in the valley itself. The necessary
materials were, in part, to be found in the vicinity of Gröden.
Thus limestone and a pink kind of argillaceous earth for undercoating
could be obtained by the Grödeners themselves. Larch resin for
the lacquer was also available. The paints consisted of bone glue and
a variety of pigments. Bone glue is liquidized through heating, thus
the paint pot had to be placed on a simple stand over a small oil
lamp. If a new colour was needed during the painting-process the
relevant paint pot was placed over the flame. In the beginning,
poisonous paints, too, were used, containing, for instance, lead and
arsenic. There is a written warning from 1864: The female of the
species, because of her sedentary way of life and her occupation with
lead-containing paints, does not always enjoy the best of health. For
that reason a man should exercise due care in the choice of his
future mate. Besides distemper, watercolours were employed,
especially for wheel bases, wheels and the small boards on to which
the animals were glued. As painting was paid even less well than
toy-making it was mostly single women and girls who took on the
In 1875 an Englishwoman gave a vivid account of her encounter with
a young Gröden woman who was painting dolls: "We are at St.
Ulrich. Look with me from the window, and you shall see one of "the
signore who paint". She is a young Grödnerin who sells apples
and pears at the door of the "Adler", opposite. Although fruit in
this elevated region is scarce, and brought from a distance, she does
not carry on a brisk trade. Consequently, being a prudent girl,
desirous to make both ends meet, she employs her time in
administering little dabs of vermilion on the cheeks of a multitude
of farthing dolls. Tomorrow she will add the rosy lips, the red shoes
and white stockings; the day after, the black eyes, eyebrows, and
hair, all forming the distinctive features which these literal "babes
in the wood" must possess. Let us cross over the road and speak to
her. We are not proud how pleased she is. She tells that Herr Purger
gives her the dolls to paint. He pays her a farthing a dozen, out of
which sum she must herself rind the paint and size. If she could work
at home she could, however, paint several hundred dozen a week, but
with her stall she never manages more than half the number."
How many women and girls were painting toys in the Gröden
cottage industry at any time has not been recorded exactly. Most
contemporary reports state that three quarters of the workers in the
cottage industry were carvers and one quarter female painters.
It was a particular feature of Gröden at all times that the
cottage industry there produced and supplied more unpainted than
Neighbouring Villages Joining
When in the thirties of the last century toy manufacture had
reached its peak - after introducing paints and adding dolls to its
range - the inhabitants of several neighbouring villages joined
Gröden's cottage industry. However, Gröden retained its
position as trading center
Yet only in the Fassa Valley did toy production grow to become a
significant source of income next to agriculture. It is said that
between 300 and 500 toy carvers worked there.
However, carvers (there) confined their production mainly to
simple animals. Around 1900, 80% of production is said to have been
horses, the remainder birds and cocks. But these toys were so crudely
fashioned that Gröden's wholesalers either could not bring
themselves to accept them, or they lowered their buying prices for
them to a level which rendered the labour and transportation to
Gröden almost unprofitable. Especially in Winter, transport
across the 2000 m of the Sella Pass along paths on which you could
lose life and limb was a strength-and-time -consuming task.
When in the last quarter of the past century carvers began to turn
from toy production to fashioning sacred art, the Fassa Valley could
not Join in this development. Carvings from there had always been of
inferior quality, and as a result the Fassa Valley carvers were
unable to follow the lead of their better trained colleagues in
Gröden. After the First World War there were only a few toy
carvers left in the Fassa Valley. During the twenties and thirties a
Gröden wholesaler did the Journey over the Sella Pass only twice
yearly with his horse and car-t to collect the goods.
The Product Assortment
It is impossible to state with any degree of certainty how many
different articles Gr6den's cottage industry manufactured at various
times, as relatively few catalogues and price lists survive. However,
the items on offer in individual catalogues are by no means to be
regarded as the complete range of products of the cottage industry.
Besides, the same kind of toy was being offered in a wide variety of
sizes and in a simple or a refined finish. As time went by,
individual wholesalers more or less fixed their sights on specific
importing countries and offered mainly toys which those countries
ordered preferentially. But equally, all other toys manufactured in
Gröden continued to be available for supply.
A travelogue from 1875 relates the following on this chapter: "In
Italy, where ride is so much pleasanter than to go on foot, the
juvenile desideratum is little carts and waggons, which must be gaily
painted, too, for young Italy likes bright colours. Young Belgium
calls out for sturdy farm-horses. Young Austria and young Hungary for
prancing war steeds. Young Prussia! yes, what does he want? At the
present moment he laughs till he cries over a foolish little monk,
who will say his prayers, while another foolish little monk tires
himself to death as he rings the monastery bell. These pious folk in
Gröden are delighted that young Prussia should desire such
edifying toy, believing that he prays, not laughs, over it, and
supply it with the same fervour as crucifixes to the bigger children
of France, Bavaria, and Tyrol."
There are toys in 250 different patterns listed for 1890 - and in
another source even 500 - as being produced in Gröden's cottage
Industry. For 1901 300 patterns were mentioned. Even one of the
smaller wholesalers from Wolkenstein offered 210 different articles
in his catalogue for 1908, not without pointing out his readiness to
meet orders for all other Gröden-made toys as well.
Generally the animals on offer varied in size from 1 to 24 inches,
but some species were produced up to a head height of 120
centimetres. In addition, dolls were also available in half and three
quarter inch size.
The trading currency up to 1892 was Gulden (fl.) and Kreuzer
(Kr.). As from 1892 the Austrian currency changed to Krone (crown)
and Heller (farthing), when one Gulden ea. 60 Kreuzer became the
equivalent of 1.75 Kronen. The old price lists continued to be used,
however, only the prices stated on them had to be converted. After
South Tyrol united with Italy the Lira became the legal tender in
Gröden. On the old price lists which could still be used as the
goods on offer had not changed, hand-written instructions were added
regarding the currency and the exchange rate at which accounts were
to be settled. In the beginning, samples of toys were brought back
into the valley by hawkers.
The Development of New Models
In later years wholesalers took the opportunity of equipping
themselves with the new models while visiting fairs and markets, or
requests by customers for specific toys generated ideas for new
articles. At the outset, carvers produced predominantly all manner of
different animals until, from about 1840, simple turned and Jointed
dolls took over as chief article in Gröden's manufacture. More
complex toys - for cranking, for pushing, for pulling along on a
string or with pendulums - were produced, too, but these formed only
a small percentage of the total output.
New speeds of production were being achieved by divisions of
labour within the family. Thus a simple donkey was completed within
In 1877, only one family in the whole valley is said to have
carved boats. Man and wife together could make 25 dozen of the simple
sort daily or 11 dozen with sails.
In later years, there were three or four families who carved
nothing but horses of the 4-inch size. However, to meet the
occasional demand for less popular sizes, a family had to be capable
of carving horses in several different sizes. The most popular line
in carved toys were indeed horses. After these ranged dolls' heads
and a large variety of carts.
The toy-producing cottage industries of Thuringia, Oberammergau,
and Gröden all vied with each other for the distinction of
having ,Invented", around 1800, the simple wooden-jointed doll. But
as the, invented" doll was a product purely of the turning-lathe it
seems improbable that these dolls were developed in Gröden,
since lathes were only introduced there around 1820.
A source from 1846 states that fifty years earlier Grödeners
tried to carve jointed dolls freehand for the first time. The same
source mentions that meanwhile many thousand dozens (of turned dolls)
of different sizes had been sold, mainly to France and England. The
economic crisis in England, however, had led to marketing
difficulties. Thus Grödeners had felt the need to carve these
dolls in a better, more refined finish so as not to lose the English
It was at this time that dolls became the chief product of
Gröden's cottage industry and could be sold at such bargain
prices that competing areas had to discontinue their own lines in
dolls. Thus Gröden became the sole supplier of the so-called
Dutch "Dolls". In England these dolls, known as
Dutch Dolls, were given many other names besides, such as Plain
Bettys, Gretchens, Penny- or Farthing Dolls, Woodentops, Plain Janes,
Peg-Wood-Dolls etc. They were probably labelled Dutch Dolls on
account of having reached England, Gröden's main customer, via
Holland. Apparently the turnover of such dolls with their fragile
wooden joints and their not exactly durable paint was indeed immense.
They were the toys of the poorer children. Yet, as a princess, Queen
Victoria herself owned some delightful small Gröden dolls which,
together with her governess, she used to dress in the costumes of
whichever play she had most recently seen. These small dolls still
exist today. As a special line Gröden also produced the
so-called "Smallest Dolls on Earth", sized between 1.5 and 2.8
centimetres, and, in contrast to other Dutch Dolls, these were still
being made after the First World War. One Gröden peasant was the
last who fashioned these tiny dolls. He turned them on a small lathe
placed on a table, and he wore glasses with magnifier lenses while he
worked. For drilling holes for the joints he used specially sharpened
sewing-needles. According to a source from 1823, the number of Dutch
Dolls exported from Gröden annually was 10.000 dozen. (37.142)
In subsequent years, estimates of the numbers of dolls exported
rose to almost incredible heights. Yet the figures do indeed agree,
taking all the relevant information into account. Mention was made in
1873 that 30.000 4-centimetre dolls per week were being bought by a
single wholesaler. That is 30.000 of just one size of doll.
An English newspaper report from 1875 states that 60 to 70
hundredweight of dolls were leaving the valley every week Towards the
end of the 19th century, orders for 1.000 gross (one gross = twelve
dozen) jointed dolls were reputedly not infrequently received. But at
that time some orders exceeded even these figures by far
During those decades larger families are said to have turned out
up to 1.000 dolls per week and up to 40.000 dozen from January till
In around 1877, a carver was paid 6 Kreuzer per dozen 3inch dolls.
In 1891 payment for dolls of different sizes varied between two
Kreuzer and three Gulden (florins) per dozen. The considerable
difference in prices fetched by the various sizes of dolls is
explained by the fact that - in place of the simple but very fragile
peg-wood-joints - bigger dolls were given wooden ball-and-socket
joints which took a good deal longer to make. Also, instead of just
using round timber for the limbs, the arms and legs of the bigger
dolls were turned, and the carved shoes had to be affixed after the
First World War it became difficult to procure
wood in Gröden. At times felling trees even in one's own
wood was forbidden. The relatively large amounts of wood needed
and the fact that simple jointed dolls were no longer in demand
nipped the few attempts at reviving production almost in the bud. The
"Smallest Dolls on Earth" apart, one might justifiably take the start
of the First World War as marking the end of the Gröden doll
manufacture. At the same time demand for the remaining articles
decreased, and some of the lines on offer had to be discontinued.
After 1918 many young people, stimulated by their courses at the
technical schools in the valley, changed over to carving religious
art or to producing souvenirs. Only the older workers stayed in toy
manufacture. During the twenties the rustic style of the old
Gröden products under-went a distinct change, and in the
thirties traditional toys were hardly produced any more. In effect,
the toy manufacturing industry of Old Gröden must be considered
defunct as from the beginning of the First World War. But, to
demonstrate once again the unbelievable amount of toys which were
still being produced in the last quarter of the nineteenth century,
there is a description dating from 1875 of the store houses of one of
the big Gröden toy wholesalers: "See wareroom after wareroom
filled with piled-up bins of quadrupeds and bipeds, chiefly in white
wood. See these flocks of sheep by the million; these manifold
chanticleers, these phalanxes of horses, red, white, brown, and
black; and there the thousand little red platforms on wheels which
they are intended to mount; and again more horses, everywhere horses;
some supplies more accurately, carefully finished, some done in a
cheap, cobbling manner, but all the future objects of delight to many
little children. Here are billions of wooden dolls, flung down
The Development of Trade
Trade developed in parallel with toy production. Hawking, the
original trading method, could build on experience gained from
selling Gröden lace from door to door. There is a report from
1754 about Gröden women who, besides lace, sold carved (picture)
frames at fairs and markets, while in 1796 there were already hawkers
carrying only carved goods.
Not long after, (trading) settlements were established at home and
abroad. Peter Welponer of Gröden is said to have set off for
Mexico around 1777.
And in 1805 it was stated that some people from Gröden
travelled to various cities in the USA with lace. In around 1807
already two thirds of the valley's population had reputedly settled
abroad, mainly in Southern Europe. 130 settlements are mentioned.
Towards the end of the first half of the 19th century this
enormous migration out of Gröden ceased under the influence of
changing trading conditions and general conscription laws in Austria
which did not permit persons liable to military service to be absent
from home for any length of time.
While in the early 19th century selling toys from door to door was
the rule, this method of trading steadily declined with the advent of
mass production, and business was taken over by the Gröden
In 1856 the present road between Gröden und Waidbruck was
built which eased the considerable difficulties of transporting goods
out of the valley as experienced up to that time, as well as bringing
In 1868 Waidbruck became a station on the Brenner railway, and in
1916 there followed the construction of a narrow-gauge railway line
from Klausen to Plan beyond Wolkenstein.
In 1890 came the establishment of a telegraph station at St.
Ulrich, and in 1905 the valley was connected to the telephone grid.
Considering the fact that around 1855 a letter to Vienna took two
weeks to arrive, and thus an answer could not be expected in under
four, the importance of this development concerning the valley's
trade becomes more obvious.
In the beginning, wholesalers may have just functioned as
suppliers of stock to the as yet small outlying settlements of
erstwhile hawkers, but with the onset of mass production came the
necessity to organize trade at a large scale. Thus, from around 1820
onwards, wholesaler firms were being established, some of which
developed into great commercial houses. For 1846 two wholesalers were
named as important.
In 1880 there were in St. Ulrich twelve, in St.Christina one and
in Wolkenstein four wholesalers reputedly engaged in business, and
out of these eight were considered to be large firms.
Before the outbreak of the First World War four major wholesalers
were listed whose business already at that time comprised large-scale
transactions in religious art as well as in toys.
It fell to the wholesalers to organize the work in the cottage
industry, to open up new markets and to dispatch the goods. Because
of the trade connections abroad, business correspondence had to be in
various different languages, and with perpetually changing customs
regulations in transit countries and in the countries of destination
it became necessary again and again to work out new and advantageous
transport routes. Besides, customs regulations stipulated that goods
had to be sorted for dispatch as higher duty was levied on painted
toys than on unpainted articles.
As usual in business, there was market research to be done. Fairs
had to be visited and new lines of goods introduced while toys that
were no longer in demand had to be discontinued. Thus, wholesalers
had to possess a wide-ranging knowledge and be familiar with a large
variety of activities.
As elsewhere in toy-producing cottage industries, the wholesalers
were generally depicted as exploiters of the work force, and the
larger of the mercantile houses in Gröden did indeed attain
considerable wealth while the situation of the toy makers was
characterized by depressing poverty. Yet each wholesaler developed
his own individual ways in his dealings with workers. Commonly
carvers and (female) painters received their pay in cash. However,
some wholesalers ran grocery shops as a side-line and paid carvers in
kind out of their shops, naturally also profiting from this kind of
"sale" of their merchandise.
In addition, the tendency to undercut each other's prices, a
practice known from the areas competing with Gröden, proved
deleterious to the workers' interests. It resulted in a steady
decline in carvers' earnings.
A report from 1891 about the badly-paid workers states that with
some of the articles they earned so little as to be hardly able to
feed themselves, and that they therefore tried to take even less time
over making these articles, with the result that Gröden toys
fell into dis-favour on account of their crudeness. The writer
suggests that if old prices could not be increased they should at
least be maintained so as to enable the workers to supply better
quality goods. This would be in the interest of trade as well as of
the workers themselves.
Wholesalers did not, as a rule, have workshops of their own. Only
the packaging-crates were produced by some of the bigger wholesalers
in their own carpenters' shops. Smaller wholesalers ran their
business purely with the help of their families, but once the firm
expanded, additional help had to be hired, both office staff and
labourers being employed on a permanent basis. The latter had to be
Jack of all trades, carrying out tasks from the simpler glueing and
mounting jobs to sorting and packing the goods.
At the start of this century, working hours were from 7.a.m. to 12
noon and from I p.m. to 7.p.m., but if necessary, up to two hours
unpaid overtime had to be worked in the evenings. Workers had Sundays
off. Already at the end of the last century the bigger wholesalers
had all outgoing mail copied into the "Kopierbuch" (copy book) with
the help of a simple copying machine.
Working with representatives proved problematic as these could
frequently not resist the temptation of giving the orders they had
collected directly to the workers, thereby cutting out the
wholesalers and working into their own pockets. In mail ledgers one
reads that already before the First World War Gröden also
supplied its own competitor areas with goods, as long as these could
be manufactured more cheaply in Gröden. Within the valley, too,
wholesalers helped each other out on occasion when the one other had
run out of articles needed in a hurry. As an example of many, the
owners' residence and the store house of the firm of Insam &
Prinoth, one of the biggest wholesalers of the valley, are described
below: The imposing residence and a storehouse stood side by side.
The office as well as the assembly and packing rooms were housed on
the first floor of the residence. Four employees of the firm sat
here, assembling toys or parcelling the orders. Each had an
adjustable frame in front of him into which string and brown paper
were inserted. The goods were piled on to these, in batches of 116,
1/4, 1/2 etc. dozen or gross, according to the type of article. Only
the more expensive lines were sold as single items. The finished
parcels were then carried down to the ground floor and there packed
into the large shipping crates. Up to the time when Gröden was
connected to the railway network, these crates were taken off from
here by horse and cart. The second storey contained the accommodation
of the wholesaler and his family, and in the loft the wood-panelled
so-called pattern room was to be found. Customers or "higher
personages" could view the entire range of Gröden toys here.
The store house of the firm is described in a travelogue from
1873: "I do not know when I have seen any sight so odd and so
entertaining. At Insam and Prinoth's alone, we were taken through
more than thirty large store-rooms, and twelve of these were full of
dolls millions of them, large and small, painted and unpainted, in
bins, in cases, on shelves, in parcels ready packed for exportation.
In one room especially devoted to Lilliputians an inch and a half in
length, they were piled up in a disorderly heap literally from floor
to ceiling, and looked as if they had been shot out upon the floor by
cartloads. Another room contained only horses; two others were
devoted to carts; one long corridor was stocked with nothing but
wooden platforms to be fitted with horses by
and by. Another room contained dolls' heads. The great dusk attic
at the top of the house was entirely fitted up with enormous bins,
like a wine-cellar, each bin heaped up high with a separate kind of
toy, all in plain wood, waiting for the painter.
The cellars were stocked with the same goods, painted and ready
In the beginning the carvers and paintresses took the occasion of
their walk to church on Sundays to deliver their goods to the
wholesalers. But this ,Sunday trading" was abolished in the 19th
century, and only workers who lived some distance away were allowed
to make use of Sundays for de livery. For the inhabitants of the
valley Saturday became de livery day.
Wholesalers took delivery of unimaginable huge amounts of toys.
Between 1805 and 1814 4.000 to 5.000 hundredweight (I hundredweight =
56 kg) of toys were said to have been exported annually.
Between 1849 and 1853 the annual average was 3.746 hundredweight.
In 1877, 8.000 hundredweight of goods left the valley. From the
middle of the 19th century onwards the figures given for the toy
export increasingly contained wooden sculptures as well. Between the
two World Wars the Gröden toy production rapidly declined. This
merchandise which had, by the mid-nineteenhundreds already been
dispatched as far as Australia, New Zealand, Africa and America was
no longer wanted, and the erstwhile toy carvers turned towards other
opportunities of earning. Yet now approximately 40% of the valley's
inhabitants are employed in industries connected with wood.
An account of the toy-manufacturing cottage industry of
Gröden cannot be concluded without some description of living
conditions among the working families. Already in 1807 a report
stated that carvers had to sell their goods as quickly as possible in
order to be able to pay their families' living expenses. Even then
training for the children to improve their carving skills or to
enable them to become sculptors in wood could not be afforded as
nearly all the earnings were needed for food and clothing.
Pauperization of families steadily grew in the course of the 19th
century. Only a few years before the outbreak of the First World War
a report stated that: the toy carvers' wages have unfortunately
dropped a great deal so that a substantial proportion of these
workers in the toy manufacturing cottage industry are seriously beset
by worries about how to feed themselves, to a degree of finding it
hard, at times, to fend off actual starvation.
There were various reasons for the worsening of conditions in
Gröden, such as the fact that farms, through land division among
inheritors, decreased in size, that factories took up production of
tin plate, porcelain and papier-maché goods, that the taste of
the times tended towards perfection, and not least that increasing
competition within as well as beyond the valley depressed prices and
wages. Carvers who with their entire families, worked for twelve to
sixteen hours a day yet could scarcely keep their heads above water
any longer had slipped into the kind of poverty which is known to
have prevailed in some of Gröden's competitor areas as well.
As to nutrition in Gröden, cereals predominated over meat
throughout the 19th century. The barley which grew in the valley was
considered suitable for breadmaking, in accordance with the need of
the people to live off their own farm produce as completely as
Descriptions of meals from this period mention barley soup with
potatoes boiled in their skins, barley dumplings in soup, small
barley dumplings with butter and home-made cheese, barleyflour and
malzeflour cooked to a porridge and browned in the oven. The evening
meat frequently consisted of potatoes boiled in their skins and milk.
Beverages were water, milk or barley coffee. Twice yearly the
flattish "Fladen" bread was baked, off which pieces had to be chopped
with the help of a hand-operated guillotine-like apparatus. As a
means of preserving bread supplies there was a dish of potatoes
boiled in their skins available in the kitchen, and anyone who was
hungry helped himself from that. In the poorest homes some of the
sleeping places were made up in the workroom which also functioned as
the living-room and could be heated.
In the middle of the last century fire still had to be "struck" by
means of a flintstone and steel. Pieces of suet with linen rags for
wicks served as lamps, and these were lit with a sulphur-soaked
thread. This light was also used for work.
Relatives took care of the sick and needy as far as they were
able. For those without relations general collections in the valley
had to be organized.
Up to until the eighties of the last century Gröden had no
piped water supply, with the exception of a few short water conduits
through wooden pipes. People had to carry water home on their backs
from the nearest watercourse, often having to cover considerable
distances in this pursuit. In Winter water was also brought to the
houses in large wine kegs by horse-drawn transport.
Elementary school education was still extremely rudimentary in
1838. The children spoke Ladinish and frequently learned to read and
write German and Italian without understanding these languages. In
addition, the school taught a small amount of arithmetic and the
basics of religion.
Wholesalers' children needed better instruction to prepare them
for their future tasks, and most were sent to educational
establishments in Bozen or Brixen.
A Drawing-school ("Zelchnungsschule") was opened in St. Ulrich in
1821 in order to improve the craftsmanship of children of the workers
in the cottage industry. This school was later equipped with better
instruction aids and reorganized to become the "Zeichen- und
Modellierschule" (drawing and modelling school).
At the other end of the valley, in Wolkenstein, a technical school
of modelling and carving was established no earlier than at the
beginning of this century. The impoverished toy carvers who needed
their children to stay at home and help with their work resented
those technical schools.
The effects of the technical schools upon the toy-producing
cottage industry were in the main twofold: firstly, they turned
trained young workers away from the cottage industry and towards
artistic wood carving, secondly, they led to the loss of the peasant
and folk element in a skill which had been handed down for
generations within the valley. The young carvers were partly
influenced by the wholesalers, too, when reorientation from toys to
actual wood carvings took place in the cottage industry.
Living conditions of workers in competing cottage industries
within the German-speaking realm were similar to those experienced in
Gröden. There, too, if circumstances were adverse, a carver
working with the help of his entire family might, in economically
depressed times, earn hardly enough to sustain himself. The hardship
of the workers engaged in the cottage industry casts a shadow over
the enjoyment we derive from these old and lovable toys.
You can purchase this beautifully illustrated book at te
MUSEUM DE GHERDRINA
Cësa di Ladins, Streda Rezia
1-39046 Urtijëi/St. Ulrich, Italy
Adolf Senoner, Edmund Dellago
Friesenecker & Pancheri
Copyright by Museum de Gherdëna
All rights reserved
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