Ethnographic collections in Gordailua: Work

Gordailua, the Gipuzkoa Heritage Collection Centre

This small exhibition focuses on work; specifically on the tools and implements that shaped Basque pre-industrial society.

Lan eta jan, jan eta lan: the expression - which can be translated as “work and eat, eat and work" - refers to a world in which even getting the most basic of things, food, involved a great effort. It is understood whether working by hand or using the efforts of animals.

Working by hand
Industry led to the gradual disappearance of craft activities in two ways, both related: the mass production of products previously made by hand and new economic activities thar replaced old trades.

Some trades barely kept going due to the fact that the products they offered were either no longer used or were manufactured industrially, often with other materials; basketry, for example.

Baskets were widely used to keep and move products of all kinds in small villages, markets, bakeries, in selling fish on the street, etc.

Not only the materials, but also the mechanisation of means of transport led to the virtual disappearance of some specific basketry products, such as specific baskets for each fish or those that were put on horses.

In some cases, keeping trades going was an option as opposed to mass and serial production. Hand-woven fabric added value to unique and unrepeatable products due to the material used and the work done by hand.

The textile industry was the first business activity to be industrialised in the 18th century. However, hand spinning lasted until the beginning of the 20th century because it was a complement to the scarce economic resources of women: “little is gained by spinning, but less by looking”.

However, the thread wheel for the warp of the loom was such a specific instrument in the long and costly process of converting fibres into fabric that only a few examples remain.

This was one of the few activities in the fabric world in which men were involved because it was a specific profession: weaver.

As happened with cooking, in the 20th century the traditionally feminine and anonymous profession of sewing became linked to big names which were almost always male, when sewing gave way to “fashion”.

Working by hand with industrial products
Most hand tools did not disappear, but the materials and manufacturing techniques were now industrial. Perhaps the best example was the Bellota brand from the renowned “Patricio Echeverría” factory in Legazpi (Gipuzkoa).

Large anchors were one of the main products manufactured in Basque ironworks; however, most were very modest in appearance and the materials were simple but effective and used until very recently.

Other much more recent machines are still similar even now, the only difference being that they now have a motor and are made of more hygienic materials, such as stainless steel.

Forestry activities have been mechanised for decades in terms of cutting trees, transportation, wood processing, etc.

The manufacture of axes was also industrial, although they kept the characteristic Basque typology and those used for aizkolaris competitions.

Unlike the axe, which is still used occasionally, two-man saws have almost disappeared.

Having been replaced by the chainsaw, they are hardly ever seen outside exhibitions or rural sports events.

The most versatile tool
Hitting something that you want to break, open, pierce... is probably the oldest transforming activity. Simple and effective, very old and still used, the hammer has adapted to every specific function by varying its material, size, shape, handle layout....  

Every trade has its own hammer, and often several, because the manufacture of an object may require a number of actions applied to a specific material on an exact surface with a certain force. This example came from the company Platería Satostegui in San Sebastian.

Shoemaking is another profession in which every hammer performs a specific task. Gordailua has kept all of the tools from two shoemaking workshops, one from San Sebastian and the other from Burunda in Navarre.

Sometimes, the tool is kept, but the hammering surface is replaced if it has suffered a lot or if different effects are required; that is the case of this bush hammer for stone.

The tool may even have been for the exclusive use of one person; in those cases, apart from just being adapted to their needs and characteristics, it went beyond its mere use to become a prestigious instrument.

From old junk to cultural heritage
As a result of the disappearance of some trades or ways of working, many objects have ended up being considered heritage, insofar as they help us to understand how important those jobs were.

Even in small gardens, the hard work of ploughing the land with a couple of forks has been replaced by mechanical instruments or more versatile tools.

Animal-drawn carts have practically disappeared from the rural landscape.

But long before that, pneumatic tyres had already been adopted, as the solid wheels of Basque carts damaged asphalted roads.

Sometimes a craft trade has kept going, because demand for the product has continued, despite all the changes in the rural world. Cowbells, for example, continue to indicate the presence of cattle on the mountain.

Although there are industrially manufactured bells, the need to adjust the specific sound of each cowbell to the tastes and needs of the clientele has allowed the trade to survive.

Even wooden strap collars are still found next to leather ones or others made of other materials, these days synthetic materials.

However, decorations, or perhaps symbols that we do not know how to interpret nowadays, are hardly ever made of pyrography by the farmer himself, but are painted instead.

There are trades that have not been mechanised; they simply disappeared long ago, at least in our environment. Their objects can be considered both ethnographic and historical; this is true of whale fishing.

Others are, in theory, also not practised as they are illegal; but poaching with traps is still a reality today.

“Mugarri” literally means a boundary stone. As such they have not disappeared, as they continue to fulfil their function; but they have been made of cement for decades. Old examples are often found next to new models.

The ones that are no longer made are “sel” boundary stones. The “sel” is a plot of circular terrain, with a central boundary stone and eight radial ones. This way of delimiting the terrain is no longer practised and the boundary stones have often been removed from their original location.

Gordailua, Centro de Colecciones Patrimoniales de Gipuzkoa
Credits: Story


The Gipuzkoa Heritage Collection Centre
Provincial Council of Gipuzkoa

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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