In early ethnographic literature the term Szczawnica Highlanders was used to refer to the inhabitants of a group of villages located in the valley of the Dunajec river between the mountain ranges of the Pieniny, the Gorce and the Sącz Beskids (southwestern slopes of the Radziejowa massif), that is: Szczawnica Niżna and Szczawnica Wyżna (originally there were two separate villages – Lower Szczawnica and Upper Szczawnica) situated in the valley of the Grajcarek stream (to the east of the Dunajec), and Krościenko situated on the left bank of the Dunajec (once the only town in the region), Grywałd, Tylka and Hałuszowa. The term Pieniny Highlanders was used to refer to the inhabitants of the two villages situated on the southern side of the Pieniny, and to the north of the Dunajec, which in this stretch marks the national border – Sromowce Wyżne and Sromowce Niżne. Their culture was somewhat different from the one of the Szczawnica group, and much closer to the Spiš culture (especially in respect of the traditional dress). Currently, especially in the country and region studies literature, these two groups are combined under one umbrella term of the Pieniny Highlanders.
In the north, the Szczawnica Highlanders border on Tylmanowa and (across the Gorce) a part of the sprawling village of Ochotnica Dolna, which along with Ochotnica Górna is said to be inhabited by Ochotnica Highlanders. The neighbouring villages in the northwest – Czorsztyn, Kluszkowce and Krośnica – constitute a transitional area strongly influenced by the Podhale culture; in the southwest lies the Spiš village of Niedzica, and in the south – Pieniny Highland villages – Sromowce Wyżne and Sromowce Niżne. In the east, Szczawnica Wyżna used to border on Szlachtowa, which belonged to the so-called Shlakhtov Ruthenia. In 1947 the Ruthenian inhabitants of these villages were displaced. Consequently, Szlachtowa was settled with the Szczawnica and Krościenko people, and Jaworki – with the inhabitants of Ochotnica and Podhale.
In the First Polish Republic, the villages of the Szczawnica Highlanders, along with the above-mentioned neighbourhood, were parts of the royal demesne administered by the Starosty of Czorsztyn. Many villages under this Starosty – e.g. Czorsztyn, Sromowce (originally Przekop), Kluszkowce, Tylmanowa – were already mentioned in the 14th-century sources; Ochotnica is the oldest (in this part of the Carpathians) village settled by Wallachian shepherds (1416); both Szczawnicas were probably founded at the end of the 15th century, while Mizerna, Huba, Tylka and Hałuszowa were founded in the 17th century. At the beginning of the 19th century, the Austrian government set about selling the former royal lands into private hands. The territory of the former Czorsztyn Starosty then broke up into three dominions: the Szczawnica, the Krosno and the Czorsztyn one. The Szczawnica domain was bought by the Hungarian family of Szalay. As from the 1830s, when the Szczawnica domain was managed by Józef Szalay, the Pieniny village quickly began turning into one of the most fashionable spa towns in the Carpathians, taking advantage of the numerous szczawnicowe springs offering therapeutic mineral waters, after which the village was named. Earlier on, at the end of the 18th century, their use was quite limited. Expert assistance in this respect was provided to Szalay by Józef Dietl, a famous Polish balneologist. In the 1840s, at the dawn of its fame as a health resort, Szczawnica had several dozen spa clients, while in the 1870s it had more than 2300. Apart from the spa clients, the first tourists and holidaymakers, fascinated by the Pieniny, began coming to Szczawnica around the same time. It was on the initiative of Józef Szalay that the greatest tourist attraction in the region was originated – rafting trips down the Dunajec Gorge in the Pieniny. All these factors substantially contributed to the growing economic possibilities enjoyed by the local highlanders who found it difficult to provide for their families on the basis of the traditional economy.
The basis of economy for the Szczawnica and Pieniny Highlanders, just like in Tylmanowa, Ochotnica, Czorsztyn and other neighbouring villages was sheep farming under the mountain herding system, as well as collective cattle pasturing in communal clearings (Szczawnica), supplemented with agriculture and backyard cattle husbandry. Unfavourable natural conditions stood in the way of good agricultural results. The main crops included oats, rye and barley. Large quantities of cabbage, broad beans and peas were grown, and the 19th century saw the rising cultivation of potatoes, which quickly became the staple diet. Traditional farming methods (e.g. a three-field system, land fallowing, slash-and-burn forest clearing) persisted for a long time; also, ancient, wooden tools were in long-standing use (e.g. ploughs, harrows, threshing flails, winnowing shovels).
A mountain, shepherd-chalet style herding was a seasonal (from May until September), collective sheep pasturing event in mountain pastureland, forest clearings or fallow leas (field parts in lea villages, e.g. Szczawnica Niżna). Pasturing was conducted under direction of a professional senior shepherd (occasionally elected by the whole commune), with the aid from juhasi (junior shepherds) and homielnicy (assistants). The shepherd chalet was a manufacturing place of klagany (rennet-curdled) sheep’s cheese, bundz, smoked (unscalded) oszczypek cheese and fermented, salted bryndza cheese spread. Żętyca whey was the staple diet of the shepherd chalet workmen. During the grazing, mountain pastureland was fertilized by sheep penning. In higher grazing grounds, sturdy, framework shepherd chalets (kolyby) were put up; they served as accommodation and cheese-manufacturing places. There were also portable sheep pens and kennels for dogs tending the pens at night. Spring and autumn redyki (activities consisting in herding sheep to and from mountain pastureland) were major village celebrations (as well as great attractions for spa visitors and holidaymakers).
Highlanders from the Pieniny region hired themselves out in lordly forests; woodworking crafts such as shingle-making, cooperage, cabinetmaking and carpentry were popular. Women occupied themselves with flax and wool treatment, yarn spinning, weaving of linen and wool for cloth. As Szczawnica thrived as a health resort and a holiday destination, highlanders would also become employed as drivers of horse-drawn wagons transporting passengers, and bargees serving rafting trips organised down the Dunajec. They earned their living by offering lodgings; women were hired in kitchens; food (e.g. cheese, milk, eggs), wild blueberries and mushrooms were sold to holidaymakers. Despite these earning possibilities, in the 19th century both seasonal and permanent emigration to foreign continents (e.g. both Americas) “in search of bread” was quite common.
The majority of Pieniny villages are loosely-developed, long chain settlements nestled in the bottoms of stream valleys, thus related to the arrangement of forest leas. The longest chain village in Poland is Ochotnica (in total both the villages measure 24 kilometres in length). There were also multi-road villages, which was connected with the lea field arrangement (e.g. Szczawnica Niżna). Homesteads were typically composed of several buildings (a cottage house, a barn or a shed), which were often arranged at a right angle, in a letter “L” shape, which protected the house against strong winds. Cottage houses were built of spruce half-logs. The building construction was a framework one, and the gaps between the beams were filled with moss, clay and whitewashed. A rafter roof, usually of a gable construction and with gable eaves, was shingled. Typically, a house comprised two living rooms separated by an entrance hall; sometimes a larder was sectioned off from the entrance hall. Poorer houses sometimes had only room and an entrance hall. In the 19th century in the region there were narrow-fronted houses, that is ones with an entrance located at the gable wall. Until the end of the 19th century it was common to build chimneyless houses. At the time when the health resort was already in operation, new architecture appeared in Szczawnica: wooden villas and pensions in imitation of the Apline resort architecture. In the old-style Szczawnica architecture Józef Szalay originated a custom to mark highland houses with wooden shingles featuring painted “emblems” (e.g. “At the Little Angel,” “At the Hungarian pedlar’s,” “At the Parrot”), which made it easier for holidaymakers to find their lodgings. In some places this tradition has been preserved till this day.
The dress traditionally worn in the Szczawnica nad Pieniny region can be traced back to Spiš. The Sromowce dress is in fact recognized as one of the Spiš varieties. In time the distinctness of the Szczawnica region increased, especially as regards ornamentation. As for men’s outfit the characteristic element was the white, embroidered, highland-cut trousers of homespun cloth (originally quite short ones); they had one przypór (slit) on the right side, decorated with a loopy or heart-like embroidery. Trousers were supported with a long, narrow, button-studded belt, which was wrapped around twice. On holidays, a broad bacowski (in the style of a senior shepherd) opasek (a belt) with three buckles was worn. Over a white, linen shirt, a lejbik was worn – a blue or black waistcoat of factory-made cloth; it used to be decorated only with metal buttons and horizontal tabs or strips of red chain stitch embroidery. In time the embroidered elements evolved and became enriched with floral motifs, not only in szlaki z oknami (borders with window-like sections) down the front portions, but all over the waistcoat surface. In the Second Polish Republic, bargees employed to do raft trips down the Dunajec were obliged to wear waistcoats with such ornamentation overload. On holidays unmarried men would wear, over shirt cuffs, the so-called zapiąstki (a kind of wristbands); they were embroidered, multicoloured striped, knitted or made of cloth. In the past, a long, white, cloth sukmana coat with a korona (a red, crown-like appliqué), flared at the hips, decorated with trimming and red cloth appliqués was used as an outer garment. At the waist, on the right-hand side, a four-toothed korona was sewn along the edge. At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, the sukmana coat was superseded by a brown gunia, which in the Pieniny region was called kurtka ‘a jacket;’ at first, it was modestly, and later on lavishly ornamented with embroidery (especially along the slit on the right-hand side and on the standing collar). A black, small brim hat used to be decorated with raki, that is a leather, serrated band densely studded, and later on Podhale-style little kostki (cowrie seashells) were added. As footwear, kierpce were the most popular; on major holidays rich farmers used to wear Spiš-style calf-length boots. The highland trousers from Sromowce (Pieniny highlanders) used to have wider legs embellished with a red, cloth border (like in the Spiš variety from Kacwin); men in Sromowce used to wear both long, brown sukmana coats and short, white gunia jackets modestly decorated with cloth edging. The most distinctive elements here were Spiš-style hats with a high, turned-up brim; broad, Liptov-style belts and (worn by rich farmers) Spiš calf-length boots with two carved teeth (spiszoki) above the knee. Those men who worked as bargees on rafting trips down the Dunajec used to dress “in the Szczawnica style” as early as the beginning of the 20th century.
More ancient type of outfit worn by women in the Szczawnice region included characteristic white, linen skirts (of a fartuch type), red-and-white striped kanafaska or navy tocenice skirts imprinted with white and blue patterns. On top of the skirts, tocone zapaski (aprons) were worn (sometimes imprinted on both sides). White, linen blouses – richly gathered, with ruffles at the neck and cuffs – were sometimes modestly embroidered. Shirts worn in Sromowce had smużki (red embroidery-like weave patterns) on arms and cuffs (like in Spiš). Red, black or green lejbiki anglijowe (bodices made of fine cloth), with metal buttons, and decorated at the front with multicoloured braid-like embroidery. White rańtuch ample shawls of fine rąbek linen used to be worn as outer garments. In winter, women would put on brown, cloth tunics resembling men’s gunia jackets. Married women used to wear bonnets with a tooth-like flap over the forehead (of a Spiš type), and on top of them – scarves tied under the chin. As from the beginning of the 20th century, women’s costume saw some radical changes; floral tybet (a fabric originally made of wool of Tibetan sheep or goats, hence the name) was already used for making skirts and zapaska aprons; bodices were also made of tybet – but most often of velvet – laced and with multi-coloured embroidery. In those days, in Szczawnica atłaskowy (sateen-like) embroidery became the most popular – it reproduced floral motifs in the Art Nouveau style. As regards headwear, there was a large selection of patterned or plain, factory-made scarves of varying thickness.
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