Our crafts and craftsmen

In the villages of old, every inhabitant had a precise role. The craftsmen’s work was to meet the needs of the community and they were a vital part of it.

There was no competition as such in early 20th-century rural Alsace, and people often practised several different trades, this for various reasons:

  • their main activity was seasonal,
  • they wanted to increase their earnings,
  • their activities were traditionally interlinked.

These trades and crafts are among the things that comprise the intangible cultural heritage. They need to be protected, preserved and also showcased in the same way as buildings and everyday articles and objects (lien vers bâtiments et objets). When you visit the Écomusée d’Alsace you’ll be able to see genuine craftsmen at work, in their own buildings. All you need to do is push the door open and make your way in.

The barber

Right up until the early 20th century, the barber reigned supreme over beards and moustaches. With an exclusively masculine clientele, his job required but few tools:

  • for shaving: the shaving brush and the cutthroat razor,
  • for trimming beards and moustaches: comb and scissors

After the First World War, the cutthroat razor gradually became replaced by the safety razor and its disposable blades, as invented by Gillette. Barbershops started going out of business and their role was increasingly taken over by hairdressers.

Did you know?

Until the 18th century, barbers also played the role of surgeons! While doctors of the time possessed knowledge that was mainly theoretical, barbers used to carry out minor surgery and physical acts, such as bleeding, drawing of teeth, cupping and setting broken bones.


The baker

While most bread nowadays is made by bakers, this was not always the case. In the country, at the beginning of the last century, every family used to make its own bread. Breadmaking day was usually Saturday and it was more often than not the job of the mistress of the house.

Unlike other regions in France where an ordinary oven was used right up to the French Revolution, in Alsace houses had their own bread oven. They can be seen sticking out from the back of houses in the museum village.

Once the breadmaking was finished and the oven was still hot, any remaining dough would be rolled out and covered with cream, fruit or even onions. This was the origin of the famous Alsatian tarte flambée, or flammakuecha which is still to be found in restaurants all through the region.

Did you know?

While bread is a fundamental part of European diets, its origins date back to ancient Egypt. Egyptians began to eat flatbread some 3500 years before Christ and they were made of a sort of cereal-based dough. Bread as we know it today probably came about by chance, when, for example, dough left out in the sun began to ferment and subsequently rose during the baking process.


The wheelwright

The wheelwright was an expert in woodworking and his job was to make vehicles, such as carts, wagons and trolleys, the hardest part of which was making the wheels. He also crafted tool handles and ladders, among others.

To be a wheelwright, he needed the skills of both a carpenter and a blacksmith, the latter especially useful in the final stages of wheelmaking, when the iron tyre is fitted.

The roads people travelled along often used to be in poor repair and carts were frequently brought in for the wheelwright to repair. He was often a very busy man.

Although practically every village had its own wheelwright in the early 20th century, the trade began to die out and there were almost none left by the 1950s, especially with the increasing prevalence of motorcars and rubber-tyred wheels.

Did you know?

Although the right word for a wheelwright in Alsace was wagner he was also called a krum holz a local variant meaning twisted wood, in reference to the type of wood he worked with.


The cobbler

The cobbler, with the clog-maker, was responsible for putting shoes on the feet of the villagers. The former made shoes out of leather, using one of 2 techniques:

  • The pieces of leather were assembled on an iron or cast iron last, using nails,
  • The leather was assembled on a wooden last, then held together using pegs and secured with waxed laces.

Shoes that were sewn together were more expensive, but of better quality than the shoes made using nails.

Shoe repairs, which is the main work done by cobblers today, was in earlier times the job of a specialist cobbler.

Did you know?

The word “cobble” also means to “put together clumsily or very quickly”. The French word for cobbler, “cordonnier, is derived from cuir de Cordoue (Cordovan leather), meaning leather from the Spanish city of Córdoba.


The blacksmith

The blacksmith was an important, respected person in the countryside as he was the only one able to work metal. Everybody in the village needed him – the wheelwright for preparing the iron tyres for the wheels and for forging the axles of carts, the carpenter for making bolts, window locks and door knockers, the cooper for the metal bands around the barrels and farmers for their ploughshares, harrows and forks. The blacksmith was also the go-to person for tools of every kind.

The success of the blacksmith lay in his skill in welding pieces together. He often also acted as a farrier, a locksmith and metalsmith, making objects such as gates and weathervanes.

There was nothing complicated about the smithy, it consisted of a coal-fired forge with a hood, and leather bellows to raise the temperature and heat the metal until white hot, a tank of water for quenching the metal, an anvil and the tools of his trade (including hammers and chisels, tongs and a wire brush).

Did you know?

Although the blacksmith and his skills were essential in village life, he was often a feared figure, for he frequently had a larger-than-life reputation, verging sometimes on suspicion of wizardry, due to his skill with fire and his coal-blackened face.


The fishermen

Fish were to be found all along Alsace’s rivers and professional fishermen were important figures in village life right up to the middle of the last century.

Fishermen used hemp thread to make a wide variety of traps and nets for catching the fish. The trade took a significant turn for the worse as pollution, industrialisation and canal building took their toll on water life and volumes of fish dropped steadily over the years, virtually disappearing in the 1950s and 1960s, at which point most fishermen had switched to other activities. There are, however, a small number of fishermen who still make a living from their skills in Alsace.

Did you know?

The rivers in Alsace are rich in fish, but the biggest of them all, the Rhine, is also known as a river down which flow grains of gold carried along by the current. Some fishermen also used to work as gold-panners, sieving the water to recover the flakes and augment their somewhat modest earnings.


The potter

The potter specialises in making articles and objects out of clay, especially those designed for use in an oven or over a fire. Most of the things a potter makes are for domestic use, such as cake moulds, pots for baeckeofe or milk, bowls, plates and also flower pots and vases.

The pottery which has been reassembled in the Écomusée d’Alsace is representative of the techniques and skills used by the potters of Soufflenheim, a village in northern Alsace.

Pottery used to be considered as fairly mundane, functional things, used for cooking and keeping food. From the 1930s onwards, cast-iron and enamelware articles began to take over and pottery nowadays is used generally for decorative purposes and potters have adapted their output to meet the new needs.

Did you know?

The potters of Soufflenheim were granted the right to take clay from the ground in 1181 by Frederick Barbarossa, who, legend has it, was hunting when he was attacked by a charging boar, only to be saved by a potter. The Emperor decided to thank the potters’ guild as a whole by granting them this right.


The saddler

Saddlers specialised in making and repairing leather goods, such as bridles, straps, halters, yolks and pack saddles with the leather made from the hide of draught animals. Their goods were vital for farmers for attaching their animals to farm equipment.

Like the wheelwright, however, saddlers found their work disappearing after animals stopped being used for work around the farm. Some saddlers moved off in a different direction, successfully converting to making leather bags, car seats and furniture coverings, for example.

Did you know?

The French have 2 words for saddler, one (bourrelier ) for the person making the stuffed leather pads placed under the collars, yokes and saddles, and the other(sellier) for the one making the equipment used for riding horses.


The cooper

The cooper makes wooden barrels, very often for use by wine producers. The job requires considerable skill, especially when it comes to bending the wood, using a combination of heat and water.

While barrels used to be used for preserving and transporting not just liquids, but also solid goods, such as gunpowder, they are now almost exclusively used in winemaking.

Did you know?

Coopering is a trade that, in France, can be traced back almost 2000 years to Gallic times. The basic skills, using water and heat to bend the wood, have changed little over the centuries.


The basket maker

Basket-makers are craftsmen who weave decorative or functional objects, such as baskets and furniture, using fibrous or pliable materials, the commonest of which is wicker made from thin branches of the willow tree. This is a trade which requires considerable manual skills, which are used, for example, for knots, braids and interlacing.

Many basket-makers used to own their own willow plantation.

At the beginning of the 20th century, there were some 23,000 to 25,000 basket-makers working in France. Today, there are just 180, scattered all over the country, with concentrations in the Haute-Marne and Touraine.

Did you know?

The most successful period for basket-makers was during the Industrial Revolution as their skills were needed by many sectors, including wine production, agriculture and baking. Demand nowadays comes mainly from the entertainment, fashion and garden-decoration sectors.

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