Craft industry in Kraków
In his acclaimed study Good Work: The Ethic of Craftmanship (2010), the American sociologist Richard Sennett called the human desire to do one’s work well universal. Craftsmanship as a creative act resulting in the production of unique objects has a long history in Kraków. In the narrow alleys of the Old Town, Kazimierz, Podgórze or Nowa Huta, we can come across old masters who pass on their knowledge from generation to generation. They are assisted by younger enthusiasts, who, inspired by a sentimental attachment to working with their hands and in opposition to widespread computerisation, choose their own professional path, one often not always certified by a university degree.
Both spheres: professional, institutional crafts and the phenomenon of neo-craftsmen make up the intangible heritage of Kraków. Let us together trace the history of crafts in Kraków and discover the most interesting places where we can encounter it!
At the beginning: ‘ We’re better off together ’
Like any area of human activity, crafts are characterised by great dynamism. Certain professions have developed in different eras, others have disappeared, and it is no different today. The same is true of the history of craft workshops, which appear and disappear, changing addresses, responding to the basic needs of the market. In this context, the places and businesses that cultivate craft traditions from generation to generation become real treasures, deserving protection and support no less than the most important monuments. But let us start from the beginning.
From the very beginning of the settlement process centred around Wawel Castle, the inhabitants of Kraków were producers of goods and services. However, it was not until the incorporation of the city under Magdeburg (German ) law in 1257, when Kraków began its most prosperous period in history, that the real flowering of crafts began. The multicultural city attracted settlers from all over Europe, who developed their businesses in a variety of trades.
It then became customary to concentrate a particular type of service in selected streets of the city. The tradition, which has survived to the present day in the cities of Italy and which could be expressed in the phrase ‘ We’re better off together ’, has left its traces in Kraków in the names of streets and old fortifications, demolished back in the 19th century, guarded by craftsmen’s organisations. Thus, we have ulica Szewska (Shoemaker Street) and Baszta Pasamoników (Pasamonik Tower), where belt makers were to be found. Interestingly, all three surviving towers from Kraków’s fortification system bear the names of crafts – the other two are Baszta Cieśli and Baszta Stolarzy (Carpenters Tower and Joiners Tower).
The crafts ejoyed political and economic significance in medieval Kraków. From the 14th century onwards, representatives of the various professions began to organise themselves into guilds, whose regulations were laid down in statutes approved by the king himself. The guilds’ role was to set labour standards and protect the interests of craftsmen. Extensive professional training programmes controlled by the guilds emerged – from journeyman to master. The term ‘partacz’(‘bungler’), which was used to describe unskilled producers working outside the guild, has maintained its pejorative connotation in the Polish language to this day.
There were at least 25 guilds in 15th-century Kraków, and at its peak there existed about 60. The organisations have survived to the present day, and there are currently 24 of them in Małopolska alone. Thus, we have the Tailors’ and Related Trades Guild, the Cracovian Crafts Guild of upholsterers and furriers, the Goldsmiths’ Guild and the Leatherworkers’ Guild. Here you can see their full list.
A remarkable monument to the glory of medieval craftsmanship in Kraków is the Baltazar Behem Codex – a beautiful book from 1505, handwritten in Gothic majuscule in three languages which alongside the privileges and statutes of the city of Kraków, contains the laws of the Kraków guilds of the time. This literary monument is embellished with colourful miniatures depicting the work of 25 Kraków guilds, such as tanners, pewterers, swordsmiths and slingers. The original of the book can be found in the Jagiellonian Library.
Printing as a craft
Late medieval Kraków also became the country’s leading centre for the development of the printing trade. The year 1473 marks the beginning of printing in Poland, when Kasper Straube, who came to Krakow from Bavaria, set up his workshop in Bernardyńska Street. This happened only 18 years after the completion of the printing of the famous Gutenberg Bible.
A wall calendar from Straube’s press in 1474 – Almanach Cracoviense ad annum 1474 – is considered to be the first surviving print in the Polish lands. Another printer active during this period was Jan Haller, who in 1503 invited the typographer Kasper Hochfeder from Germany and set up a workshop for him. In 1508their workshop produced a book considered to be the first printed in Polish – Historyja umęczenia Pana naszych Jezusa Chrystusa (‘The Story of the Martyrdom of Our Lord Jesus Christ’). For a long time, however, the 1513 prayer book Raj duszny (‘Little Garden of the Soul) by Biernat of Lublin, printed in Kraków in the printing house of Florian Ungler was regarded as the pioneering book printed in Polish.
The multicultural character of old Kraków is also evident in the early prints created near Wawel. Printing flourished in the Kazimierz area, serving the needs of the city’s Jewish community (e.g., the printing house of Isaac of Prościejów). Hebrew fonts were also in the possession of the aforementioned Florian Ungler and Maciej Wirzbięta in their studios. The printer Szwajpolt Fiol, on the other hand, is considered the world’s first Cyrillic typographer.
A time of regress and renewal
The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries brought the decline of Kraków, and with it, a reduction in the activity of the guilds. The nobility, hostile to the bourgeoisie, jealous of the guild’s privileges and favouring orders given to unqualified rural craftsmen, played their own negative role in this process. Despite this, old Kraków retained much of its artisanal character. At the end of the 19th century, there were as many as 6,000 craftsmen out of a population of 90,000 in a provincial city stifled by a circle of Austrian fortifications! The craftsmen were grouped in 27 guilds representing 53 specialties.
An important, albeit indirect, developmental impulse was provided by the times of widespread industrialisation. At that time, Kraków, deprived of large-scale industry, was a neighbour of Podgórze, founded by the Austrians on the other side of the river, where the restrictive guild laws did not apply. Surrounded by factories, Podgórze attracted not only workers but also small craftsmen opening their workshops. Incorporated into Kraków in 1914, Podgórze has maintained its artisanal character right up to the present day.
The scattered guild organisations of Kraków began to consolidate their forces at the beginning of the 20th century, first as the Chamber of Handicraft Associations, and from 1928 in a free Poland as the Cracow Chamber of Crafts based on the new industrial law. Craftsmen’s professional education was re-organised and crafts flourished despite the general economic crisis. In 1939 there were 23,000 businesses in Kraków, employing over 35,000 people. In 2001, the Crafts Chamber was transformed into the Małopolska Chamber of Crafts and Enterprise, the name it has operated under ever since.
The war brought the extermination of Kraków’s Jewish community, and with it, numerous workshops and craftsmen’s studios that were well-known and valued among the inhabitants of Kraków. The difficult communist times in Poland were characterised by a changing attitude of the authorities towards individual entrepreneurship. In the period 1948–1955, the state even took up arms against crafts as a private initiative, forcing craftsmen to unite and form cooperatives.
Another blow to craftsmen was the 1989 law abolishing the obligation to belong to a guild. Many of the ‘old masters’ consider this to be the start and the source of the problems that soon affected crafts: the decline of professional education, the invasion of mass production from Asian markets, the dynamic growth of large retail chains and the increasingly rare return of old items for repair.
Crafts today. The future, or the power of sentiment?
Only in recent years has this situation gradually changed. Mass-produced goods are felt to be too ordinary. The experience of isolation during the pandemic has directed our attention to what is local. Reflection on climate change has brought an interest in things that are not only unique, but repairable and reusable.
This trend has given rise to numerous campaigns reminding people of the role of crafts in society. From rather catastrophic publications, such as the album The Last of the Mohicans by Kraków-based French photographer Grégory Michenaud (2009), to the Dobre Cechy (Good Crafts) project created between 2012 and 2016, crafts attract public attention and inspire. The public interest was followed by the Kraków City Council, which in 2009 created a programme specifically dedicated to protected professions granting them the right to reduced rent in city premises. It now covers 48 professions.
On a walk through Kraków’s craft workshops – the Old Town and surroundings
In the Old Town, multi-generational small businesses with traditions dating back to the 19th century prevail. These include places such as the Płonka family watchmaking workshop, established in 1899 and located at 12 Szewska Street, or the Garzyński photographic studio at 4 Sławkowska Street, where Marshal Józef Piłsudski – the architect of Poland’s rebirth – had his photograph taken. The BIELEC Art photographic studio at Plac Inwalidów 6 can also boast an equally impressive pedigree.
Returning to the Planty area, we can also visit the Świerblewski family’s glass-making workshop at 3 Św. Krzyża Street, established in 1880, with its original pre-war display board bearing a four-digit telephone number, or Janusz Kowalski’s goldsmith’s workshop at 6 Sienna Street. Nearby, we can also drop in for a visit to a tailor’s shop – for example the 100-year-old establishment of Andrzej Kucia at 8 Św. Gertudy Street, or Józef Turbasa’s artistic workshop at No. 15. Both places were frequented by the literary Nobel Prize winner Czesław Miłosz, a neighbour from Bogusławskiego Street. Not far away, at 82 Kościuszki Street, the De Mehlem family’s leather goods manufactory was established.
Kazimierz and Podgórze
A visit to the Kazimierz district is a journey through the world of small shops offering a range of products to suit absolutely every taste, led by the legendary metal store at 15 Bożego Ciała Street. On the way from the Old Town, at 2 Stradomska Street, in the Le Szapo hat shop, we can see how the solid craft of millinery has successfully found its way into contemporary reality. At 8 Wolnica Square, you can look through the shop window to watch Stanisław Kurkowski, a violin maker with over 40 years’ experience, repair an old camera at Krakowska Street, and at 6 Meiselsa Street, buy original sourdough bread baked in a 100-year-old English oven at Piekarnia Mojego Taty (‘My Dad’s Bakery’). You can feel the atmosphere of a traditional printing workshop in the workshop of Józef Rakoczy, operating as part of the Museum of Engineering and Technology (15 Św. Wawrzyńca Street).
On the other bank of the Vistula, in the picturesque Podgórze district, you can order original chess sets in the workshop of the neo-craftsman Łukarz Wiciarz at 3 Św. Benedykta Street. Podgórze is a place where the old and the new intermingle – until recently one of the two umbrella repair workshops in Kraków operated here, as well as a century-old shops, framing workshops and sewing machine repair shops. An important venue is Żywa Pracownia (5 Celna Street) – a centre for training in arts and crafts, based partly on the popular idea of folk universities. Żywa Pracownia classes attract both people interested in re-inventing themselves and corporate employees tired of their office lifestyles.
Nowa Huta, a model worker’s town in the People’s Republic of Poland, has been enjoying a second youth in recent years. You can find here shops where you can have your shoes repaired, your torn clothes stitched up or even… your umbrella repaired (osiedle Szkolne 14). The district is distinguished by its pedestrian-friendly character, which makes it possible to take care of various daily needs in a few minutes, ideally corresponding with the idea of a 15-minute city. The ‘Nowa Huta Zero Waste‘ maps that were set up in the district a few years ago on the initiative of the Polish Zero Waste Association referred to this idea.
Between workshop and museum
An interesting trend in contemporary museological art is being followed by some of the larger artisan studios and manufactories. At Pracownia i Muzeum Witrażu (Stained Glass Workshop and Museum) at 23 Krasińskiego Avenue, we can take a look at how unusual compositions made of coloured glass and lead frames are created in response to orders from all over Poland. The tour finishes in the gallery, where one can admire stained-glass designs by Stanisław Wyspiański, Józef Mehoffer or Stefan Matejko (nephew of the famous Historicist painter Jan Matejko), which were created in the workshop. At Kraków Huta (Glassworks) at 3 Lipowa Street, we can see how glass is blown and how the fascinating mixture of sand, soda and lime transforms into tableware to be served on our tables.
Visiting Kraków following the trail of craftsmen is an engaging activity and a text that we can create right away… with our own feet! As you make your way through the city, don’t forget to keep a close eye on the signs and passageways to the courtyards. You may discover something interesting there!