Physical environment

There are various methods and principles for systematising folk culture. The easiest way is to divide the folk culture into two parts: the physical environment and the way of life. The first category covers the places where people lived and the environment that they created for themselves. The second category describes the way people lived in this environment. Both categories have always been interconnected by people's ideas, beliefs, and traditions.

Central to the development of the physical environment was farm architecture, the development of which was influenced by the natural conditions, availability of certain building materials, and the particular features of the economy.

The oldest records regarding Estonian villages date back to the beginning of the 13th century (Liber Census Daniae, 1241) and show that large villages existed in Northern Estonia. At the moment there is no precise information about the appearance of the villages, the location of the farms or the general planning of the villages.

Estonia can be divided into two main regions according to the types of settlement. Diffuse villages were characteristic of Southern Estonia; elsewhere the villages were more densely populated. Diffuse villages were villages with irregularly located solitary farms. In Northern and Western Estonia irregular villages of dense inhabitation were common. There were also villages where the farmsteads were located next to each other in a line on one side of the street (‘line villages’) and villages where the farms were located in a line but further apart (‘chain villages’). Such villages were usually located on a slope of a drumlin or some other oblong hill. The fields were located higher on the slope and the lower lands were used as grazing lands, pastures, or meadows. In Eastern Estonia there were Russian-type villages with houses close together on both sides of the street. Such differences in village types can be attributed to geographical peculiarities: the flat landscapes in Northern and Western Estonia were more suitable for villages with irregularly located farms; the drumlins in Central Estonia favoured the development of ‘line villages’; and on the hills of Southern Estonia, diffuse villages were established.

Farm architecture
The most characteristic features of Estonian farm builings are, above all, their unity with the surroundings and an overall exterior harmony. There were many factors to be taken into account when choosing a location for one's farm. The yard was to be on a higher spot in order to prevent it from being too damp. Very important factors were the availability of fresh water and the proximity of a forest. Farm buildings were built around a spacious lawn.

The most important building, the barn-dwelling, faced the yard and was usually opposite the gateway. The barn-dwelling is a unique type of building: it included the chambers for the family, a threshing room, animal sheds, store rooms and sometimes a sauna. The only places besides Estonia where such buildings can be found are Northern Latvia; it is likely that in the very distant past barn-dwellings were also used by the Votyaks in Ingria. A barn-dwelling consisted of three parts: a kiln-drying room with a barn (threshing-room) on one side and chambers on the other side.

Old farm houses were characterised by large hip roofs covered with straw or reed that were at least twice as high as the visible part of the walls. There was a triangular opening at both ends of the roof, ungas, emitting smoke (the first chimneys appeared as late as the mid19th century) and letting in light and air. Crossed gable boards were nailed to the upper sides of the opening.

The central and most important room in a barn-dwelling was the kiln-drying room with a furnace. This served as a living room all year round, although in autumn grain was dried there. Until mid-19th century, such rooms had no windows; the light came in through an opening in the wall that could be closed with a board, or through a tiny window covered by a pig’s bladder. The doors were low, with a high threshold. Both the kiln-drying room and chambers had horizontal beam walls and earth floors; in North Estonian limestone areas the floors were often of limestone slabs. A huge stove usually stood in a corner, made from stone or limestone. On an open hearth in front of the stove food was prepared for the family and for the animals as well. When the fire was on, the smoke was let out through the door.

The largest room in a barn was basically used for economic purposes, with a wide gate in the front and back wall where grain was taken in in autumn. Grain was thrashed there. In winter, farm animals were kept in the room, primarily horses and pigs; also various vehicles and horse harness; hay and straw were stored in the loft above the room. During weddings and parties it served as a room for dancing, in summer a dining table was often set up there.

The German-origin word kamber (chamber) is first mentioned as late as the 17th century. For a long time, it designated a room without any heating used as a storeroom and a bedroom in summer. In early 19th century, kamber became smoke-free and was provided with heating and glass windows; in the second half of the century it also got a wooden floor. Kamber was primarily used by the master and mistress with their small children, other adults and older members of the family remained in the dwelling-barn.

The life of a farm household in the barn-dwelling depended heavily on the annual cycle of the seasons. In autumn all the movable items were taken out of the threshing room, which was then used for drying grain. Later the room was dusted, the soot washed away and everything was once again fit for everyday life. In winter when it was particularly cold, some of the smaller animals and poultry were also kept in the threshing room. There was a special space for hens under the bedstead, called a ‘hen cage’. New-born piglets, calves, and lambs were brought inside where it was warm; ewes who had just given birth to lambs, milking cows, and sick animals were sometimes also kept inside the barn. In spring, girls started sleeping in the storehouse, boys in the hayloft, and adults in the chamber. A summer kitchen was used for cooking and quite often people had their meals outdoors.

Estonian households gave a rather meagre and shabby overall impression until the mid-19th century. This makes one wonder: why was it so? Obviously there is no simple answer to that question. Barn-dwellings must have hindered the development of farm furniture. A barn-dwelling was used both for living and working in but its primary function was still connected with work. This becomes evident in comparison with our neighbours (Latvians, Finns, Russians), who used their houses only for living in. This also applies to the Estonian Swedes. Their furniture was more lavishly decorated with painted images and carvings The dark barn-dwellings had a rather complicated ground plan that had been developed with a view to drying and threshing grain. In addition, in the lightless threshing room things were barely visible. Another explanation is the sad historical fact that Estonians were, after all, serfs owned by a lord. The motivation to make changes in one's life increased tremendously once people could buy their land as freeholds in the 19th century.

One of the oldest items of farm furniture was the chest — a wooden box with a heavy lid. Its structure was based on the ancient pillar construction. Its usual place was in the barn, although a few containing items needed more often stood in the threshing room. Older chests were small and stood on the floor or hung on the wall.

The Estonians started using beds probably in the 18th century. Before that people slept on bunk beds attached to the wall, on straw and tow sheet. Infants slept in a cradle.

The older dining tables had Gothic-style cross-shaped legs with a removable top, making it easier to take it out during the threshing period. In addition to benches fixed to the wall, simple benches and stools were also used. Chairs were manufactured on a larger scale as late as mid-19th century.

The dark dwelling-barn was primarily lit by splinters, stuck between the stones of the stove or fixed by an iron clasp. During parties, the light was provided by mutton fat candles.

Very rapid changes took place during the last quarter of the 19th century in the old way of life, in the usage of different rooms and in the way the rooms were decorated. The threshing room began to be used mainly as either a kitchen or a storeroom or a room for drying grain. Chambers were used as the living-quarters and the number of chambers depended on the prosperity of the farm. Particularly in the country houses (i.e. fairly big dwellings used solely as living quarters) of Mulgimaa which used to be a relatively wealthy county, people started to decorate their living rooms (also called ‘the large room’) in a manner that followed the trends prevalent in towns. The furniture was bought from the local joiners, not made at home anymore. Clothes were stored in wardrobes and chests of drawers rather than in traditional chests. For weddings, context dowry chests were replaced by wardrobes that were to be ordered from the carpenter by the bride's father. New furniture was taken to the chambers and the older things were left in the threshing room.

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