Decoratively Made Bukovina Székely Bed, BonyhádMarch, 2020
In November of 2019, the Museum of Ethnography purchased a fully furnished peasant parlour set from the village of Bonyhád. The furniture in question originally occupied the “clean room” – that is, the room adjacent to the village street – of the home of an elderly Székely couple originally from the Bukovina region of Romania. The centrepiece of the set was a bed piled high with decorative textiles that had never been used for sleeping.
Ostentatiously made beds came into prominence in the rural homes of the late 18th century with the rise of the two-room, “smoke-free” (i.e. chimneyed) peasant dwelling, featuring a street-side parlour arrayed in expensive furniture and fancy household textiles. The beds that adorned these rooms were piled high with feather-filled linens, colourfully woven or embroidered lace pillows and sheets, and valuable woollen coverlets, all decorated according to the tastes and preferences of the local community. The bed itself was frequently little more than a stand for the textiles it was meant to display, the latter representing the greater value. Such beds were both a sign of affluence, and a tribute to the manual dexterity of the housewife, who made the majority of its blankets, sheets, and pillow slips herself, at home. In some regions, including Bukovina, rugs and decorative scarves, also produced by the matron of the household, were hung on rods above the bed. The contents of the bed and rod together served to showcase the household’s most precious textiles, as much as to decorate the room.
The fully decked bed occupied a special place in a bride’s trousseau and was publicly carried to the home of the groom’s family, where the newly married couple would live, on the occasion of a woman’s wedding. The rest of her possessions – jewellery, clothing, and other textile items – were placed in a special bridal chest. The bed and chest together, therefore, represented an asset a woman would carry with her her entire married life.
The earliest known depiction of a parlour bed in a Bukovina Székely home appeared in a drawing of an Istensegíts interior published in 1899. Visible next to the door, the towering bed featured four enormous decorative pillows and rugs of a type known as festékes. (OMMÍK, Volume 17, Bukovina 1899:313.) A 1948 snapshot from Kakasd currently found in the Museum of Ethnography Photographic Archive shows the decorated bed of a Bukovina girl in the process of preparing for her wedding: the bed, probably the former property of a resettled Swabish family, had been provided by the Land Foundation and decorated in the Bukovina fashion by mother and daughter, who had produced the linens themselves.
The story of the museum’s Bonyhád bed, for its part, is an unusual one: because the families of the bride and groom, who had fled Hadikvalva and Andrásfalva in 1944 to settle in Tevel and Izmény, both opposed the young couple’s marriage, the bride had received the help not of her mother, but of her older sister in preparing for the event. In the bride’s own words: It was a powerfully poor world in 1952, and we had not even a ring. So poor were those times, we had to use one of brass. Then my sister gave me this chest so I had something to keep my clothes in [...] I had a show bed and sewed all the pillows for it and everything else, and we piled it all on the bed, and we took it with us like that.” Though that particular bed did not survive, decades later, when the girl had grown to retirement age, she prepared another, using sheets from her family’s estate, pillow slips given to her by her older sister, a festékes coverlet woven by her sister-in-law, and a duvet cover she sewed herself from material purchased on a trip to Romania, all placed on a simple bed she had brought with her from Bukovina. This new bed, however, she made not for her daughter, who had long since married and moved away, but for herself.
It might be asked: what meaning (or meanings) could a Bukovina parlour bed with all its trappings possibly convey for an observer a 21st-century rural Transdanubian town? Members of the generation of Székely who lived through the 1941 resettlement from Bukovina to Bácska and subsequent flight to Transdanubia began demonstrating renewed interest in their group’s cultural roots during the 1970s and ‘80s. The owner of the Bonyhád bed was herself a member of an ethnic heritage preservation society and had returned home to Hadikfalva as a tourist on several occasions. The show bed she outfitted for herself as an adult stands as an important material vestige of her identity as a Bukovina Székely. Previously, the rural bridal trousseau and bed had, over time, incorporated any number of innovations. This particular bed, however, did the opposite, preserving the memory of an 80-year-old version of the custom via a mixture of inherited antiques and new items similar to their antique antecedents. The effect is one of time’s having been stopped, a construction that embodies timelessness, an entity of eternal validity from another age whose creation and preservation formed an integral part of every woman’s life. As a museum piece, the bed is an agglomeration of objects in which a household ideal from the past and a need to memorialise on the part of the present meet, and the interior, with its Bukovina Székely and Transdanubian Swabish furnishings, a bearer of the story of a people uprooted and resettled.
The Bonyhád bed and accoutrements, together with its concomitant furniture and textiles, are part of the Museum of Ethnography’s new permanent exhibition, where they will feature in a section entitled Object Biographies.