Artefact of the Month

For the Festival of the New Bread – Flour Container from Vas County

August, 2016


In the early 20th century, a new form of harvest festival, the Festival of the New Bread, was inaugurated as the closing event of the harvest season, a period that in Hungary commenced with the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul. Coinciding with Saint Stephen’s Day, the festival stemmed partly from the medieval liturgical practice of the Dispersion of the Apostles, and partly from a Decree issued by Agricultural Minister Ignác Darányi in 1899, the primary intent of which was to alleviate conflict between landowners and sorely burdened agricultural workers.  Because successive political powers were to mould this “invented holiday” each to its own purposes, its popularity remained constant, with celebrations proceeding as heartily throughout the Interwar Period as during the years of socialism.  Though with the decline of traditional agricultural practices, the nature of the harvest, in both its symbolic, and concrete senses, was permanently altered, the holiday nevertheless retained its “ancient” character – one that, in truth, owed more to the Gyöngyösbokréta (Beaded Bouquet) folk dance movement than to authentic tradition.  The key element of the holiday was the presentation to municipal elites of a round loaf of traditional bread, baked from the flour of the new wheat and bound with a ribbon in the national colours, the cutting of which was followed by a lively dance and entertainments.  Also connected to the event were striking braided harvest wreaths produced from wheat straw.  Though the harvest festival was celebrated with renewed vigour following the fall of the iron curtain and end of the socialist regime in 1989, it has declined in popularity since the turn of the millennium, until today, it serves primarily as a marketing opportunity for the baking industry.  

The Museum of Ethnography’s “artefact of the month” for August relates to flour, an ingredient that required painstaking work to produce and that was therefore held in particularly high esteem in peasant households.  In 1909, the Ethnography Department of the National Museum acquired ten spiral-woven straw baskets of various types as the result of a trade conducted with the Vas County Cultural Society.  The collection, comprising typical household containers of the western borderlands noted for their distinct local character and archaic appeal, included baskets for carrying fruit and water, for holding bread and eggs, and one particularly striking storage basket described as a “kópic”.  Regarding this final piece, artefact no. 77403, virtually nothing is known, the inventory log listing only its function – “flour kópic” – and place of collection – “Sárosszék, Vas County”.  Thus, its identification has relied almost entirely on our knowledge of analogous pieces and local folk life.  Made of rye straw densely and evenly tied with unpeeled, split willow whips, the basket likely dates to the second half of the 19th century and, though in good condition, certainly experienced normal use, as can be seen from the slight deterioration of its lower edge.  Foregoing the traditional urn-like form, its maker opted to weave the basket with sides that are nearly vertical, a solution that was frequently seen in ethnic German communities like Sárosszék (today part of Pinkamiske in the Burgenland province of Austria).  The horizontal handles of the container are sections of the bundled straw of its walls that have been made to bulge out on either side.  As in general, such baskets were fitted with lids, it may be assumed that the container once featured at least some ad hoc cover to protect its contents from dust and pests.
    In Sarosszék, threshed grain – in general, wheat and rye – was taken to the water mill on the rapidly flowing Pinka River to be ground into flour.  Unlike wheat flour, which varied in grain size, rye flour was produced in a single, uniform quality and was kept in pantries, cribs, flour boxes, and large baskets.  When needed, the flour was measured out using smaller, oval measuring baskets that were often left in the container with the flour.  For baking bread, the necessary quantity of flour was taken to the kitchen in a wooden tub or appropriate basket, where it was sifted, the starter prepared, and the dough laboriously kneaded, left to rise, and baked.

Krisztina Sedlmayr

NM 77403 Straw Flour Basket
Sárosszék, Vas County
Late 19th century