Thursday, January 29, 2009

The custom of Horseshoes and Vardos

There has always been some great debate about which way a horseshoe is faced for good luck. There are some who say the prongs down pour the luck out which is bad, and some say it is good because it pours out the luck to all who pass under it.

The Romungro or Hungarian Gypsies have traditionally hung horseshoes over doors with open end up to capture and keep god luck or “baxt”. A horseshoe hanging over a doorway or on a door prevented evil from crossing the threshold. Gypsy women also would wear small gold or silver horseshoe necklaces for the same reason.  If a horseshoe was found with nails still in it each horsehow nail predicted a year of good luck. If a horsehoe was found upside down or with the ends pointing towards you it is considered bad luck and it would be spit upon or thrown over the left shoulder to ward off bad luck. If it was found with the ends pointing away from you then you keep it and hang it over the door on the vardo. All of this is evident when you look at custom crafted antique gold jewelry that dates back hundreds of years ago, in art and literature, and old photos especially of vardos, you will always see the horseshoe prongs facing up.

There is an old tale that talks about the horseshoe:

There were once 4 demons, named Unhappiness, Bad luck, Ill health and Death. One evening, a Gypsy was riding his favorite horse and as he crossed a bridge the four demons came galloping out of the woods and started to chase him. The Gypsy managed to keep ahead of them as they raced across fields, jumped hedges, and ran along roads. But bad luck started to gain on him. The 2 horseman drew away from the other demons and as they crossed a road, the Gipsy’s horse threw a show. It flew through the air and hit Bad Luck in the head, knocking him to the ground and killing him. The Gipsy stopped and picked up the shoe and continued home. He other 3 demons took their dead brother and buried him. They then went to find the Gipsy to seek revenge

A vardo is a traditional horse-drawn wagon used by English Roma. The design of the vardo included large wheels running outside the body of the van, which slopes outwards considerably towards the eaves. Originally Romnichals would travel on foot, or with light, horse-drawn carts, typical of other Roma groups or would build "bender" tents - so called because they were made from supple branches which they bent inwards to support a waterproof covering. These tents are still favoured by New Age Travellers groups.

Wagons as a form of living accommodation (as opposed to carrying people or goods): Undecorated wagons were first used in France in 1810 by non-Romany circus troupes. [1] Large transport wagons combined storage space and living space into one vehicle, and were pulled by teams of horses. By the 1800s wagons became smaller, reducing the number of horses required, and around the mid- to late-nineteenth century (1840-1870), Romnichals in Britain started using wagons that incorporated living spaces on the inside, and characteristically made them their own. There is a description of the vardo in the work of Charles Dickens, who described Mrs. Jarley's van with its bed, stove, closet or larder and several chests The Old Curiosity Shop ch. xxvii):

One half of it... was carpeted, and so partitioned off at the further end as to accommodate a sleeping-place, constructed after the fashion of a berth on board ship, which was shaded, like the windows, with fair white curtains... The other half served for a kitchen, and was fitted up with a stove whose small chimney passed through the roof. It also held a closet or larder, several chests, a great pitcher of water, and a few cooking-utensils and articles of crockery. These latter necessaries hung upon the walls, which in that portion of the establishment devoted to the lady of the caravan, were ornamented with such gayer and lighter decorations as a triangle and a couple of well-thumbed tambourines.'

These smaller wagons were called "vardo" in the Romany language (originating from the Iranian word vurdon) for cart.[2] The Romany vardo evolved into some of the most advanced forms of travelling wagon, and are prized for their practicality as well as esthetic design and beauty. There is no more iconic or recognisable Romany symbol than a highly decorated Romanichal vardo, and the time of its use is often affectionately called "the wagon time" by Romanichal travellers. The vardos were typically commissioned by families or by a newlywed couple from specialist coach builders. Building the vardo took between six months to a year; a variety of woods including oak, ash, elm cedar and pine were utilised in its construction. Prized by the Romany, and later by non-Romany, including other traveller groups, for their practicality as well as esthetic beauty, vardos can be categorised into six main styles; these being the Brush wagon, Reading, Ledge, Bow Top, Open lot and Burton. The general design evolved over time and were named after the home's owners, as in (Brush), for their traditional style (Ledge), for the town of its construction (Reading), or for the name of the builder.

Burton wagon

Popular with Romany gypsies, as well as Showmen families, and circus people, the Burton wagon is the oldest example of of a wagon used as home in Britain. Originally, with its undecorated van, the Burton wagon evolved into an elaborate Romany vardo, but due to its smaller wheels it was not suited for off-road use.

Brush wagon

The Brush or fen wagon as it was also known, consists of a standard Romany vardo, with straight sides and the wheels located outside the body. The Brush was similar in construction to the Reading vardo, but unlike other styles, the brush wagon had two distinct features: a half-door with glazed shutters, located at the back of the vardo, with a set of steps, both set around the opposite way from other wagons [3] and lacked the mollycroft (skylight) on the roof. The exterior is equipped with racks and cases fitted on the outside frame and chase of the wagon allowing the owner to carry trade items like brushes, brooms, wicker chairs and baskets. Additionally, three light iron rails ran around the entire roof, and sometimes trade-name boards, used for stowing bulkier goods. The wagons were elaborately and colourfully painted.

Reading wagon
Romanichal Reading Vardo early 20th century

The Reading or kite wagon, so named due to its straight sides that slopes outwards towards the eaves, high arched wheels, and relative light weight, there is no other vardo that epitomises the golden age of Romany horse travel. Dating from (1870) and synonymous with the original builder Dauton and Sons of Reading where the vardo takes its name. The wagon was highly prised by the Romanies for its aesthetic design, beauty and practicality to cross fords, pull off road and over rough ground, something smaller wheeled wagons like the Burton were unable to do. The Reading wagon is 10 feet long, with a porch on the front and back. The rear wheels were 18 inches larger than the ones on the front. At the start of the twentieth century the design incorporated raised skylights, On either side of the bed space, quarter-inch thick bevelled mirrors were common, and were lavishly decorated. Cupboards and locker seats were built in to prevent movement whilst travelling. Side and back windows were decorated and shuttered, and the body of the vardo itself would have originally been made from beaded tongue-and-groove matchboard, painted red picked out in yellow and green. As with other vardo, the extent of the elaborate decoration reflected the wealth of the family, boasting carved lion heads and gargoyles, these would have been painted gold or extensively decorated with gold leaf. [4] Today, surviving Reading wagons are prized exhibits in museums or private collections.

Ledge wagon

The characteristic design of the ledge or cottage shaped wagon incorporated a more robust frame and living area that extended over the large rear wheels of the wagon. Brass brackets supported the frame of the wagon and solid arched roof usually 12 feet high, extended over the length of the wagon to form porches at either end and panelled with tongue in groove boards. The porch roof was further supported by iron brackets, and the walls were highly decorated with ornate scrollwork and carvings across the length of the wagon.

Bow Top

Based on the basic design of the Ledge wagon, the Bow Top is significantly lighter, and less likely to turn over in a strong wind. The design incorporated a light weight canvas top, supported by a wooden frame. A design reminiscent of the older “bender tents” used by the Romanichal. [5] Both back and front walls of the wagon were decorated in scrollwork and tongue and groove and the wagon was coloured green to be less noticeable in a wood. The inside of the Bow Top also contained the same high scrollwork or Chenille fabric, with a stove, table and double bed.

Open lot

Almost identical in size and construction of the Bow Top wagon, the Open lot or Yorkshire Bow featured the same design but with a curtain instead of the door characteristic of other wagons. [[1]] The wagon's entrance was covered by a curtain for privacy.

Vardos were elaborately decorated, hand carved and ornatly painted with traditional Romany symbols. Romanichal would participate in the ornate carving and decoration, being skilled woodcarvers themselves, but would leave the main construction to a professional specialised coach builder. [6]

Much of the wealth of the vardo was on display in the carvings, paintings incorporated aspects of the Romany lifestyle, including horses, birds, lions, griffins, floral designs, and vinework including elaborate scrollworking heightened by the extensive use of between 4-15 books of gold leaf applied as decoration. [7] Each individual maker was identified by their particular designs.

Funeral rites

The Romanichal funeral rite during the wagon time of the 19th and 20th century, included burning the wagon and belongings after the owners death. [8] The custom was that nothing whatsoever would have been sold, preferring to leave some possessions; jewellery, china or money to the family, the rest including the wagon was destroyed.

Modern Traditional use

The Romany travellers in the (1920s) proudly clung to their decorative vardos, although the economics of their way of life was in upheaval due to the contraction in the horse-trading industry and the changes from their traditional crafts. [9] In the present day, Romnichals are more likely to live in caravans. However the tradition does survive and it is estimated that 1% of Romany travellers still live in the traditional horse drawn vardo. [10]


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Sylvia Dickey Smith said...

Great information. I'd like to know about what kind of tents gypsies of southeast Texas lived in during WWII. Thanks, Sylvia Dickey Smith