Reclaiming Rural Skills: Crafts from the European Countryside in the Global Market

This is part of our special feature on Rurality in Europe.


The image of rural Europe has been defined by local traditions that distinguish each locale from another. Hardly anywhere else is this idea as pertinent as in crafts, as reflected by the following assessment by a Hungarian official in an American magazine in 1908.

Nearly every American traveler who has visited the different countries of Europe cherishes a more or less comprehensive collection of souvenirs in the form of hand-made articles, each one of which bears the stamp of the locality in which it was made (de Szögyénÿ 1908, 653).

In this contribution, the commercial commissioner of the Hungarian government highlighted the contrast between this experience to that of European travelers to America, who would search in vain for similar objects that were symbolic of the American culture. The only American handicrafts were those “of Indian design and workmanship,” he asserted, whereas the generations of immigrants from Europe living in America had abandoned their traditional crafts in search of more lucrative employment in industries.

In the late nineteenth century, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and other European states had installed elaborate governmental systems for promoting handicraft and peasant home industries. De Szőgyény was convinced that handicraft enterprises could also take off among the farmers living in America. He boasted about the success of the Hungarian displays at the international exhibitions in Paris in 1900 and St. Louis in 1904, where peasant-made handicrafts, especially embroidered fabrics and pottery, had secured several medals and were quickly sold out (de Szögyénÿ 1908, 660–661). At the same time, his portrayal of Hungarian emigrants overseas and their aspirations of social mobility, for which they discarded peasant clothing and favored factory-made products, reveals a fundamental social change in rural Europe associated with craftsmanship at the turn of the twentieth century.

This article discusses how seemingly dismissible objects such as embroidered shirts, wooden spoons, and potted jars inform debates about living in modern society between the 1890s and 1910s. Across Europe, initiatives were made by the state authorities and wealthy citizens aimed at granting economic and social relief to the rural populations by promoting artisanship and home industries. Industrialists established charitable foundations or engaged in social enterprises in order to cater to impoverished farming families living in the countryside who constituted the primary labor force for their factories. Members of the gentry founded private workshops and marketed the products to luxury consumers abroad and overseas. The research literature has discussed these initiatives, especially with regards to artistic discourse and the development of national styles based on folk art traditions (see, e.g., Kaplan 2004; Houze 2015). These accounts have shown how urban elites have appropriated rural material culture for their own purposes. In line with the Hungarian commissioner’s account cited above, I will explore rural material culture further by foregrounding the connection between the promotion of crafts from rural Europe with those of indigenous people in post-settler states and subjects in the overseas colonies of the European empires. Thereby, I seek to highlight the potential of comparative localized studies on rural Europe for studies dealing with global processes in modern and contemporary history.


Selling the idea of rural Europe

The countryside and the practices therein have been presented as the refuge of tradition and, thereby, posited as the idealized counterpart to modernity. Rural Europe has been framed as insular and secluded, maintaining a more or less stable community and withholding change since the everyday life of villagers seemingly followed the order of clearly defined social roles (see, e.g., Lowenthal 1994). This image of rural Europe has been challenged, with narratives focusing on social change and land use regulation implemented in the countryside, the mobility of rural populations, and their different lifestyles and value systems. In a revisionist effort to diversify the idea of rural Europe and thus reject essentializing tendencies, Rosemary Shirley (2015) has suggested replacing the notion of “rural” with that of “non-metropolitan.” This notion is intended to highlight the varying degrees of characteristics-based differences between rural places and the political, social, and economic centers of urban, metropolitan environments. The notion of non-metropolitan assumes the key ideas presented by Raymond Williams in his book The Country and the City, which linked the distinction of the rural and metropolitan to concepts of progress and development, where the rural was relegated to fulfill the role of under-industrialized resource peripheries delivering food and raw materials to the developed regions. Therefore, the idyllic images of the countryside were the result of an uneven relationship with metropolitan areas, which positioned the rural in the realm of a distant past and as an antipode to the social change unfolding in industrial societies.

This framing of the rural by metropolitan agents as a site of tradition is particularly evident in the displays of handmade objects from the countryside at world fairs, which were the epitome of modern industrial society. By as early as 1867, the Paris World Fair included a category titled “The History of Work,” featuring ethnographic and archaeological displays of historical production modes that reaffirmed the claim of progress by industrialization. The promotion of craftsmanship formed an integral part of the modernizing efforts directed at expanding social welfare in rural regions, by providing additional income for elderly family members, children, women, and unemployed men, while simultaneously implementing normative beliefs of healthy and mannerly lifestyles. When the handmade products were introduced into international exhibitions, the comparative framework associated them with a geographical identity that tied them to a territory by means of style or the use of particular raw materials. Nonetheless, as these objects were presented to an international audience, the narratives describing their production sought to maintain the aura of traditional, localized artisanship (Geering 2020).

A quick glance at the local initiatives in Austria-Hungary reveals how peasant home industries were a product of fabrication. Although the exhibition displays worked with the image of untouched, native traditions that were salvaged for modern consumers, the production was, in many places, an economic venture promoted by social enterprise. These initiatives relied on village intellectuals to recruit talented artisans and train the rural youth to take up a new—rather than a traditional—profession. For example, Countess Marie Czartoryska supported the development of the basket-weaving home industry in a village located in what is today southeastern Poland. She taught boys aged between ten and twelve and granted them scholarships for training at the vocational school in a nearby town. The village schoolteacher assisted her in the production and export of products and thus ensured a steady supply of labor force (Dzieduszycki 1890, 130–132). In another village, almost two hundred miles further east, in what is today Ukraine, Count Wołodysław Fedorowycz simultaneously established a workshop for the production of kilims (a type of carpet) that were enjoying soaring international demand. His undertaking was intended to be economically viable since he was looking for options to provide a new source of income for the residents of his country estate who were unfit to work on the land. Since no peasant was capable of performing this trade, he had to first find a suitable artisan who could start the production at a profitable price. His first employees either spent the money on alcohol, cleared out to return to their native village, or requested wages too high to run a profitable business. The Count finally decided to transform the workshop into a school, in order to train young men between the ages of 14 and 18 from the region (Riegl 1892), similar to Czartoryska’s undertaking.

These two examples, among many others, reveal how the local peasant industries were deeply embedded in imperial structures and networks. Against this background, the model of the city and country in Raymond Williams’ book intended to explain the effect of imperialism on the rural. Williams’ analysis was not limited to the boundaries of the state in Europe and instead assumed a global dimension. With reference to England, he declared that the metropolitan economy determined what was to happen in the country, “first the local hinterland and then the vast regions beyond it, in other people’s land” (Williams 1985 [1973], 279), referring to the colonies of the British Empire across the globe. Therefore, notwithstanding the place identity of handmade objects, the efforts to sell them to urban consumers at world fairs were connected globally through a group of reformers, economists, and representatives of trade associations. This transregional transfer of home industry enterprises can be demonstrated by tracing individual brokers who connected the crafts in rural Eastern Europe with those in other world regions in just a few years.


Made in Russia, sold in Paris, copied in Ireland

The sale of peasant handicrafts at world fairs popularized these objects among an international urban audience. At the 1900 Paris World Fair, visitors could stroll through a delicately staged miniature version of the Russian Empire that combined European folklore with orientalist spectacle. The Russian section was situated in the Trocadéro park alongside the displays of the French, British, and Dutch colonies as well as those of China, Japan, and Egypt. In a building complex inspired by the Moscow Kremlin, the exhibitors hosted visual depictions of Central Asian bazaars, a Kyrgyz yurt, and sections where visitors learned more about the agricultural colonization of Siberia or boarded a train wagon to watch a moving panorama following the journey from Moscow to Peking along the Trans-Siberian railway. At the feet of the Kremlin complex, construction workers from the Russian countryside built a small Russian village comprising wooden buildings filled with objects from peasant industries. From there, visitors could buy a wide range of products, including embroidered fabric, tableware, cutlery, and wooden objects, created at workshops established by the local governments and nobility (Rousselet 1901, 189–195).

Export-oriented home industry workshops existed across the Russian provinces and the peasants engaged in them—called kustary—produced objects intended for consumers in distant locations unknown to them. In particular, the Moscow provincial government maintained an elaborate international trade network and sent their products to trade fairs abroad. For example, participation in the Leipzig fair, an international hub of tradespeople in the German Empire, was followed by more than 30,000 orders from Europe and America (Moskovskoe gub. zemstvo 1909). In some metropolitan areas such as Paris and London, the Russian government also set up shops that sold toys and other wooden objects, pottery, embroidery, as well as postcards and tea. At the turn of the twentieth century, segments of the urban milieu in France and Britain developed a deep fascination with Russia and the cultures of Eastern Europe more broadly (see Beasley 2020). Articles published in journals and magazines bear witness to the public captivation with the rural subsistence economy in Russia, where peasants produced their own housewares and clothing. One commentator emphasized how long-lasting and beautifully crafted the objects of Russian peasants were, labeling them “simple homely things made by simple homely people” (Peacock 1916, 33). Ideas of social relief and moral discourse were apparent in these writings since home industry endeavors were more popular in regions where agricultural earnings were fewer. Crafts were deemed an appealing industry for charitable initiatives that granted economic relief to impoverished regions while also providing a distraction to the rural population from the consumption of alcohol and premarital sexual activity. The Russian government established peasant industry workshops, distributed raw material, and facilitated the sale of products “made in Russia.”

The systematic enhancement of peasant industries in Russia also had tangible effects on other countries in Europe since it sparked similar initiatives in the British Empire. Among those who visited the Russian Village at the 1900 Paris World Fair were representatives of the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction (DATI) in Ireland, whose objective was to foster rural development through education. They purchased a collection of Russian peasant toys that they brought back to Ireland, where DATI shared these objects with the various industrial exhibitions held at festivals during the Celtic Revival (“Newcastle Feis”1904, 8). The production of toys such as the Matreshka inspired the establishment of toy-making workshops in Ireland, culminating in the foundation of the Irish Peasant Home Industries in Ballycastle in 1904 (McBrinn 2005). Hoping that the venue of the world fair would give a similar boost to their peasant industries, DATI subsequently installed an Irish Village at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exhibition in St. Louis, United States, to showcase objects created in peasant workshops and vocational schools (Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction for Ireland 1904, 41). Instances such as this reveal the cultural transfers in the local home industry initiatives that traveled across European rural regions and finally went overseas.


A transatlantic round trip

The Irish delegation was in good company in St. Louis since the organizers of the world fair noted an unprecedentedly large number of exhibits from home industries and the applied arts (Ives 1904). The Irish Village was located on the Pike, a boulevard filled with entertainment, right next to the snow-clad mountains of the Tyrolean Village. Similar to the Paris World Fair mentioned above, these artificial villages adjoined around fifty different amusement shows and carnies, ranging from Carl Hagenbeck’s zoos staging humans alongside animals to an Istanbul bazaar, a reconstruction of Ancient Rome and Old St. Louis, and finally an iteration of the Trans-Siberian railway and Russian villages. The spectacle on the exhibition ground attracted visitors from American metropolises, but it was specifically directed at “the men and women of the farms and the small towns” (Brisben Walker 1904, 616). The exhibitors believed that rural Americans would derive both novel amusement and useful instruction from the educational and agricultural sections.

At international exhibitions, rural crafts were generally perceived as a nonpersonal art that rejected the individuality of producers and instead defined types of people. In contrast to industrial manufacturers and government agencies, artisans working in home industries did not possess the means to participate as exhibitors (Exner 1890, VII). Thus, they did not participate in defining the framework of untouched, native traditions within which their objects were presented, even if they formed part of a living exhibition by performing their trade live on site. Recent research has shed light on the racialized understanding of European nationalism during the century before World War II, discussing how anthropological science had applied the concept of race to the local population in Europe (McMahon 2019). Civilization was framed in opposition to tradition that was associated with an agrarian lifestyle. As material culture superseded the individual as its producer, objects of peasant industries were leveraged by reformers to serve the objectives of geopolitics and national identification.

Due to crafts representing a distant past, the interest in them was in many instances connected to a search of origins. The examples outlined above have illustrated how peasant crafts were integrated with objects from archaeological excavations or with ethnographic objects stemming from European colonies. The transfer of practices from Russia to Ireland has also revealed that the exhibitors at world fairs were not only interested in displaying their own goods but also in receiving inspiration from the displays from other countries. These processes of exchange and transfer at international exhibitions enabled objects handmade by peasant artisans to travel across vast distances spanning the globe, facilitated by design reformers and national economists. Among them was Pál Horti, a Hungarian artist whose story illustrates the point made by the commissioner at the beginning of this article, while also revealing that rural Europe was indeed perceived through a global perspective by contemporaries. Horti was responsible for the Hungarian display at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exhibition for which the Hungarian exhibitors assembled a modern reinterpretation of a Székely farmhouse from Transylvania, thus showcasing their interest in reviving crafts in impoverished regions by introducing them into the global market.

As Horti was exploring the international exhibition, he was mesmerized by the handcrafted Native American exhibits sold in the so-called Indian Village. This was not a coincidental encounter, as Native American crafts were popularized at the same time as crafts from rural Europe. Therefore, after bringing objects from rural Hungary to the United States, Horti developed an avid interest in the Aztec culture, seeking fulfillment in his quest to trace the nomadic roots of the Hungarian nation. His fascination highlights how the modern promotion of crafts, and their connection to a local or national identity, assumed a global dimension. After the conclusion of the international exhibition in St. Louis, Horti remained in America to study Aztec home industries and traveled to Mexico with the support of the Hungarian government. The ceramics he collected there were sent back to Hungary, to stimulate new design at home, thus closing the circle of global connections that this article opened in the beginning.


Rural Europe in the modern world

The narrative presented in this article has moved from the Russian Empire to Paris, transferred to Ireland and farther to St. Louis, and finally returned via Mexico to Europe. This account has vividly shown the transregional transfer of ideas and practices, the mobility of objects and people, and the connections forged between them across the globe at the turn of the century. The people introduced in this narrative all sought to promote home industries and boost local manual production in an effort to spur regional development. The focus of this account was on entrepreneurs, industrialists, social reformers and educators, artists, and national economists who developed and promoted narratives on rural Europe as told through handmade objects. Their connections spanned across Europe when Irish reformers were looking for inspiration from Russian villagers, or they extended across the Atlantic, as in the case of a Hungarian designer’s fascination with Aztec culture. Thus, these handmade objects reveal the global dimensions framing their localized stories and offer insights into historical debates on the place of rural Europe in the modern world.



Corinne Geering leads a junior research group on comparative studies of Eastern Europe at the Leibniz Institute for the History and Culture of Eastern Europe (GWZO) in Leipzig, Germany. She is currently working on a book project that examines the use of crafts for regional development in rural Eastern Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.




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Photo: Izabella Association (Women’s Association for the Support of the Domestic Embroidery Industry in Pressburg and its Surroundings) from 1898. The image is provided with a Creative Commons license by the Hungarian National Museum.
Published on November 10, 2020.


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