Throughout my straw art journey of learning, I had always heard the story the intricate straw mosaic trays, similar to the one above, are from Greece. I had also been told the straw trays were from Spain. I had to know more about this area of straw work.
To date no one has documented who made these trays, why they were made, what they were made for, when, or where, or by who this style of straw applique art was done. So the truth is, they are a real mystery.
Rumors abound about these beautiful straw mosaic trays. Their very existence today is due to their design. Glass topped trays exposing the straw design affixed to a wooden tray. The glass protects the individual straw pieces. Despite the protective glass, loose straw will move. As a result it is common to find patterns in some of the trays trays incomplete in their appearance due to straw movement.
Though these trays were most commonly rectangular in shape, octagonal shaped trays were made too . The sizes of the trays vary from one to another. One rectangular tray may be approximately 14 1/2 inches by 6 inches +/-. One octagonal tray is more than 10 inches across. But as every tray appears to be hand made, they all vary in width as well as length. Because they are hand made there has been no duplication in any of their designs noted. For whatever reason they were created they are very special examples of straw appliqué captured in a utilitarian piece. Due to their variations in sizes we do not believe they were mass produced. There may of course be other shapes and sizes yet to be discovered and documented.
There are many explanations as to the origin of these trays.
Some people attribute them to be made by prisoners in the 1940s. Whose prisoners and why?
Some also attribute them as having been made in the late 1800s. If so, for what purpose?
Another source informs us the trays were made between 1936 and 1940 by prisoners on the island of Nissiros and were gifts to family members by the inmates. That may very well be accurate but why were they produced for only 4 years? If they were family gifts why are so many found today?
Other claims they were made by prisoners in the 1960s. Who were the prisoners, held more than 50 years ago? Why would prisoners make trays?
Another theory states they hail from the Island of Corfu in the Ionian Pelagos, and are a kind of “famous folk art”. Despite our best efforts, we could find no additional references or sources about them associated with this location*.
Another explanation was offered without identity of their reference: The “straw art” was the style of the Greek prisoners until 1955. The mentioned tray, my mother bought at the beginning of 1950s from a family friend who was imprisoned in 1943-44 at Haidari prison (German occupation) and 1947-49 at Macronissos prisons (Greek civil war).
Another source offered the following, ” As I remember in the early of 1950’s, when i was a kid, my mother bought it from one of my uncles who, as far as I know, fought against the Germans with the Greek army and later as a partisan. In 1944 he was hed by the Germans in the prison of Haidari and then to the prison of Nafplio as a political prisoner, later in Macronissos island, from where he was released in 1949. Mainly in Nafplio the prisoners made various handicrafts and sold them to visitors. Probably made there. My mother bought it the tray, to help the uncle earn a living”.
Nothing we can find thus far substantiates any of these claims.
Upon inspection, the wooden trays are not made from woods specific to one country or geographic area. The tool used to carve the decorative tray rim, appearing on some trays, is called a gouge. These wood carving tools have been around for hundreds of years but every metal gouge was hand made for a specific purpose until the early 1900s when sets of gouges were commercially mass-produced. The tool used is not age definitive either.
The join found in some tray corners are generic. Other trays have different corner joining. This second method is a locking join known as a spline corner join and is universally common in wood practice. Some trays have an applied varnish on the edges which is also unremarkable as to origin. There are no nails present in their work.
Why do the dates surrounding these trays, according to different “histories” out there, span a possible 130 years and yet nothing is documented about them? Who? What? When? Where? Why? It is a true mystery.
Why were they made in the form of a serving tray?
Was there a specific functionality for the trays, such as a wedding tray, or another occasion?
Were they perhaps made specifically for sale and export? And if so, where and by who?
Please scroll through the below gallery of images of a few of these trays:
This image shows the type of detailed work found in many trays. Every tray is unique, but many seen have this type of detailed work:
Imagine the time required for selecting, preparing, cutting and affixing every single piece of straw while the design is created? Many of these trays demonstrate the patience and artistic skill required to create their unique, individual designs as well as the hundreds of required hours of work needed in order to create them.
These trays are truly an overlooked and unappreciated area of straw art.
We simply don’t know who, when, where or why these trays were made. We do know they are preserved examples of straw appliqué in a utilitarian piece. To date we have not located an example of straw work in any accredited museum collection anywhere.
One might argue a common feature known as a Greek key pattern appearing on many trays must mean they are Greek. The Greek key design is an interlocking rectangular pattern constructed from one continuous line. Variations of this pattern has and is used by people worldwide for more than 200 years.
In our research, a few trays have been discovered with lettering. The below image was translated from Greek to a common woman’s name, such as Mary Smith, and means nothing necessarily identifiable.
In our research to date, 3 different sizes of trays appear to have been made. The octagonal shape and two sizes of rectangular trays; one approximately 16″ x 8″ and a smaller tray 14 1/2″ x 6″ +/-.
A Venetian fortress named Bourtzi ,in Nafplio, Greece is shown below. It may also be depicted in the tray above.
According to Greeka dot com , “The fortress of Bourtzi in Nafplion: ” The small island of Bourtzi in Nafplion is popular for its strong, impressive fortress. Still known by its Turkish name Bourtzi, meaning the Tower, it attracts many visitors all year round. Antonio Gambello, an architect from Bergamo, built the castle in 1471 on this tiny islet in front of the port of Nafplion, although the construction was completed by the engineer Brancaleone. The design was made specifically to fit the narrow shape of the islet.”
Bourtzi functioned as a fortress until 1865, when the executioners of the prisons of Palamidi settled in, after king Georgios’ I command. In the 1930s it was the center of the Tourist Organization and later it became a luxurious hotel until 1970. Lately it’s purely a tourist attraction, and has become the symbol of Nafpli. A picture of local feature, that is tourist attraction in straw or an ominous setting? Nothing historically as a prisoner facility.
The straw tray shown below is very unusual as it is a depiction of an actual location. The fortress of Bourtzi in Nafplion;
In addition the detailed tray shown below has the inscription “ΣΤΗΝ ΥΓΕΙΑ ΣΑΣ ΕΠΙΣΚΕΠΤΑΙ ΜΟΥ” which means “cheers my visitors”. So perhaps they were made for a housewarming gift?
Upon further examination the straw work varies.
Some straw work is precision fine with hundreds, if not thousands, of micro cut pieces of straw, while others are more simple in their style and required less material, time and skill to create.
Here is an example of the use of larger straw pieces in the center of a tray are shown in the below two examples:
Compare the above examples to the fine work appearing on only a portion of the below tray. The two trays are significantly different in execution:
Then compare another comprised of even smaller pieces:
Were there opportunities for prisoners to financially benefit from making them at some time? If public sale were possible there would be dates or written records of some sort somewhere. But where could the trays be sold? Were they available for purchase in popular tourist/cruise areas somewhere? If so where? In what tourist cities could they be purchased and then brought home? Why are they found in the United States if they were made by prisoners for their family members as gifts? The trays were made by the hundreds if not thousands for all that’s known. If prisoners made them over the course of years it is possible, depending on the prison, thousands could have been produced and sold to people. When and for how long were they made is simply not known. It is known they are not produced anywhere in the world today.
In any event, we thought the straw trays were an interesting subject to share and pose questions for thought. They are absolute Mystery Straw Trays to The Straw Shop. They are very special examples of straw art work with absolute unknown origins. Their history is folklore so far, spanning 130 years of explanations.
There was a man, named Martin Howe, then Curator at Peterborough City Museum, in England, who undertook a lot of research into straw marquetry because of the museum’s important collection of straw work from Norman Cross. He was considered an expert on the history behind these straw trays and first mentioned they were made in Greece. He never documented his findings regarding the trays and unfortunately has since passed away, along with his invaluable straw art knowledge.
One explanation offered is they were made by three groups of prisoners in Greece: Italian, Egyptian and Greek prisoners.
Another explanation offers: “this “straw art” was the style of the Greek prisoners until 1955″. The tray she has was “purchased in the 1950s from a family friend who was imprisoned in 1934-44 at Hadari prison. (German Occupation) and 1947-49 at Makronissos prison (Greek Civil War 1946-1949). The fact is that art was considered by the people as a folk art and they bought them to help in their new beginnings after prison.” Both prisons did exist. Hadari Prison and Makronisos Prison both existed as internment prisons. According to Wikipedia, “Internment is the imprisonment of people, commonly in large groups, without charges or intent to file charges, and thus no trial. The term is especially used for the confinement “of enemy citizens in wartime or of terrorism suspects”. Thus, while it can simply mean imprisonment, it tends to refer to preventive confinement rather than confinement after having been convicted of some crime. Use of these terms is subject to debate and political sensitivities.” Following up on the possible prisons producing straw work, from Wikipedia, “Makronisos (Greek: Μακρόνησος, lit. Long Island), or Makronisi, is an island in the Aegean sea, in Greece, notorious as the site of a political prison from the 1940s to the 1970s.” Makronosis Prison was an extremely violent prison. Hadri Prison was a Nazi German concentration camp from September 1943 until September 1944. It is difficult to believe anything was manufactured by prisoners in those circumstances. The offered explanation is not credible.
We did receive an explanation of the trays from an art dealer in Greece who does not know their actual origin either:
“The trays you are showing are truly made by prisoners. Prisoners from by estimate the early(19)40s till the late (19)60s. The answer to the question why, is obvious… for a living. The origins cannot be exactly told, even I have heard a lot of stories about them there is no something for sure.”
Based solely on observation, The Straw Shop believes this to be straw art work done by incarcerated people in Greece. There is presently no known straw history of production in Greece attributable to a region, city, etc. Another observation is the use of the Greek characters appearing on some of the trays. No other language style of lettering appears on any other tray we have located in our research thus far. Subject to change. The depiction of identifiable buildings also indicates the trays are likely made in Greece. The variety of straw work patterns that have been created and the unique artistic design of each tray requiring hours and hours of meticulous work have created their own signature style of work, who ever the makers were. Every tray is constructed and decorated by self taught artists who had the time available to make them. If that is correct, do these trays become prisoner art work? Did these prisoners unwittingly establish their own straw art signature? The possibilities are endless and at times plausible.
*Update 2019: A film clip from 1961 surfaced and was shared by Veronica Main for this subject. In this film clip are two straw art forms. One form appears to have been in production based on the number of pieces shown in the clip. What is exciting, yet frustrating, is the discovery of this documentation of a specific time, location and showing the actual items being sold. But the documentary does not tell us the origin of any of the makers. Town folk? Prisoners from an unnamed location? Are the straw items the “famous local folk art” of Corfu as suggested above? “Famous local folk art” made by what people where? Is one or more of the above scenarios of origin correct? They could be imported from elsewhere in Greece for that matter or beyond. What we do know is the trays and wooden straw covered pitchers were available for purchase in 1961, in Corfu, Greece as tourist items. That is all the information we can gather from this amazing piece of straw history that exists. The film clip is described as:
Corfu. VS from ship going through narrow canal. VS Ship coming into Corfu as it docks, souvenir sellers accost the holidaymakers. (Eastman Neg.)
A VIDEO FROM BRITISH PATHÉ.
Despite this new film discovery we are still seeking your help. Men sold the mystery trays to disembarking tourists as evidenced by the above documentation. How many other tourist locations were selling the same wares? Where did all of the one of a kind straw inventory come from?
The mystery trays deserve to have their story known and documented.
What is the real history behind these trays? If you can help solve the mystery, please contact: Jan@thestrawshop.com
Copyright Jan Huss, The Straw Shop, 2015