Daily Picture 14-Jan-10: Peasant Dowry Chest

Peasant dowry chest, with a mix of ethnographic and "urban" decorations; 1880s made, Dolj county, Oltenia region, Romania. (©Valentin Mandache)

I went last summer to see some traditional farmhouses for sale in Oltenia, a region in SW Romania the size of Wales. Many of the household items were left in place like in a time capsule, as some of the houses were put on sale by the descendants of deceased elderly occupants. I was able to see for example a traditional kitchen with all its medieval looking utensils ready to use, or a quaint wine cellar provided with beautiful bricked arches and lined up with old oak barrels.  The dowry chest in the photograph above was one of those charming items encountered there. It was bought, according to the seller, the son of the former occupants, at local country fair in the 1880s and belonged to his great-grandparents. I found its decoration very interesting as it contains a mixture of ethnographic and “urban” motifs, reflecting the aspirational lifestyle of the peasants of  those times. Some of the ethnographic decoration can also be identified on the local pottery. What I found interesting were the two human figures, the teenage looking, male and female, an allusion to the use of this artefact as a dowry chest and that people got then married at a much earlier age. Their apparent hairstyle and clothes fashion look as early c19th, or even earlier, while their face type is very Austrian in my opinion. The Habsburg Empire had historically a powerful influence in the Romanian lands and Oltenia region was even incorporated for a few decades within the Austrian Empire in c18th. Perhaps that was also the origin of those two figures: a popular pattern/ model circulating among craftsmen for many decades, reflecting an aspirational fashion and look introduced by the new power in the land with its modernising message (Vienna and its empire was always perceived as an European modernising force in these parts of the Ottoman Balkans). I would advise those looking to renovate/ restore a house bought in the Romanian countryside, to furnish it, in order to preserve as much as possible from its personality, with at least some local artefacts, the colourful dowry chests being just one such example, and also try to find out some of the fascinating history behind these treasurable objects.

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I endeavor through this daily image series to inspire appreciation of the historic houses of Romania, a virtually undiscovered, but fascinating chapter of European architectural heritage.

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If you plan acquiring a historic property in Romania or start a renovation project, I would be delighted to advice you in locating the property, specialist research, planning permissions, restoration project management, etc. To discuss your particular plan please see my contact details in the Contact page of this weblog.

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