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Women Carry Water: Stories from Slovenian Museums

From January 24th to February 22nd, 2024, a visiting photographic exhibition by American artist Lekha Singh titled "Women Carry the World" was on display at the Gallery of the Posavje Museum Brežice. The author paid tribute to women who carry millions of kilometers and millions of kilograms without ever receiving recognition for it. The exhibition was complemented by the digital exhibition "Women Carry Water: Stories from Slovenian Museums." The exhibition highlights women in the Slovenian region who, decades ago, carried water from various sources and wells to their homes and washed laundry in rivers. Throughout history, they carried heavy pitchers and vessels of water on their heads or shoulders to ensure drinking water for their families and communities. The exhibition was created in collaboration with 15 Slovenian regional museums – Bela Krajina Museum Metlika, Dolenjska Museum Novo mesto, Gorizia Museum, Carinthian Regional Museum, Museum and Galleries of the City of Ljubljana (City Museum of Ljubljana), Maribor Museum of National Liberation together with the Maribor Regional Archives, Museum of Modern History Celje, Velenje Museum, Museums of the Radovljica Municipality, Kočevje Regional Museum, Koper Regional Museum, Ptuj Ormož Regional Museum, Pomurje Museum Murska Sobota, and Zasavje Museum Trbovlje.
From March 22nd, 2024, which marks World Water Day, the digital exhibition will also be on display at the Water Tower Brežice. The exhibition complements interactive content on water supply heritage.
D I G I  T A L   E X H I B I T I O N

Before the water supply system was constructed, the inhabitants of the Posavje region fetched drinking water from springs and wells, from where they carried water in various containers and buckets. Carrying water from wells to houses was a tedious task, although in the town the distances to water were shorter and the way there flatter than in the countryside.

A woman is carrying well water on her head, Veronika Rostohar, circa 1964, Ponikve.

A woman is carrying water from a well.  

A girl with a bucket next to a well, Pribožič, Gorica pri Raztezu.

A girl with a bucket next to a well, Pribožič, Gorica pri Raztezu.
Metlika got a water pipeline in late 1935. This was the best possible Christmas present for the town’s people, who had been dreaming of it for many years. Thirteen communal water taps were installed around the town.

Živka Flajšman with a bucket she filled with water from a communal water tap at the Parish Church of St Nicholas in Metlika, circa 1935. Photo: Mirko Trampuš. Kept by Mirko Trampuš
The first water pipeline in the Bela Krajina region was set up in 1898; it ran from the water reservoir below Blatnik to Semič, Petrova vas between Semič and Črnomelj and to Črnomelj. After World War I, the Sanitary and Technical Department of the Ljubljana Hygiene Institute started building public wells in the villages, and in 1933 the wells in Stara and Nova Lipa were restored.

Girls from the village of Nova Lipa are carrying water, 4 July 1954. Photo: Jernej Šušteršič.

A woman is drawing water from a sweep well, Velike Dole, 1972. Photo: Janez Bogataj.
After World War II, the situation in Slavia Friulana was difficult, as the area was almost cut off from the rest of the Friuli region and had no connections. People struggled to make ends meet. The first director of the Goriški muzej, Ludvik Zorzut, loved visiting Slavia Friulana in the 1950s and 1960s, as he was friends with many Slovenians who lived there, including Ivan Trinko. During his visits, he documented various ethnological peculiarities and the life of the local people. His photographic collection includes the photo of a woman from Ažla (Azzida) who came to the village well (water reservoir) with a bucket to fill it with water.

The photo of a woman from Ažla
Back in the day, bringing water from distant wells to the houses was a daily chore for women. From the hamlet of Breg (the present-day village of Krasno) in the Goriška brda area, women would bring water from a well that was just under a kilometre from the village. They fetched water whenever needed, two to three times a day. A woman could carry two small buckets using a wooden shoulder pole or a larger bucket on her head on top of a ring-shaped pad. The village got a water pipeline in 1953, this arduous chore, however, was still fresh in people’s memory.
Recounted by Estera Medvešček, Krasno.

In 1996, Milena Drnovšček (on the right) and Zdravka Markočič (on the left) demonstrated how they used to carry water when they were young. Photo: Andrej Colja.
Women are helping out with ice breaking
Prior to the advent of refrigerators and freezers in the second half of the 20th century, people had used different methods to preserve food. Butchers and innkeepers in particular used ice to keep food and drinks fresh also during the warm part of the year. Ice was stored in icehouses, where ice broken off in winter could be stored.

Women are helping out with ice breaking. Ice breaking in Črna, circa 1920.
A girl is offering water, “Would you like something to drink?”
When it came to traditional manual farm work, children had to take care of drinks. Their job was to fetch fresh, cold water from nearby wells and bring it to fields and meadows. They went from one worker to another with water in a container and a drinking cup, offering and pouring the water.

Strojna, 1977. Photo: Marija Makarovič
A glimpse of the life of work brigade labourers during road construction, an unknown photographer, 1950s.

Filet lace, 1st half of the 20th century, unknown creator, probably made for a cushion, depicted subject: a female figure with a jug. Photo of the lace: Andrej Peunik.

A local woman is offering water to the soldiers after the surrender. The photo was taken on 28 June 1991 following the surrender of a Yugoslav People’s Army column of tanks in Limbuš. Photo: Danilo Škofič, Večer newspaper.

Rogaška Slatina thermal health resort, Styria well, 1920s/1930s.

Rogaška Slatina thermal health resort, bottles are being placed in crates, 1920s/1930s.

Visitors are drinking natural thermal spring water, Rogaška Slatina, 27 Sept 1937.  

Women are doing the laundry by the Sava river, Celje, 1930s.

In the spirit of carrying on the joint voluntary work by means of which the town of Velenje had been built by the mid-1960s, the four-kilometre road linking Velenje and the village of Šentilj was built in a similar way by numerous volunteers. The so-called ‘Town – Villages’ mass volunteer work campaign was captured on camera by the photographer Ljuban Naraks in June 1969.
When it came to physical labour, such as digging up the road with pickaxes and shovels, having a constant supply of water was indispensable. More than providing refreshment on hot days and being used for washing dusty hands, water was needed for drinking. During farm work in the fields and vineyards food and drinks were taken care of by a housewife, and in a similar fashion during collective voluntary work, women had the important role of taking care of provisions. A woman often brought water in handy containers to younger and older volunteers. Although the men would also drink home-made ‘tolkec’ (cider) or spritzer, and the children loved home-made raspberry cordial, fresh drinking water was definitely the most thirst-quenching and refreshing drink for the thirsty and tired workers.

A woman is bringing water to the participants in the ‘Town – Villages’ volunteer work campaign, June 1969. Photo: Ljuban Naraks.
Water, food and bees
The photo presents different layers of significance related to the vital role women play in society and also to the ecosystemic importance of bees, which provide humans with food and sustenance through pollination. The photo of women carrying bees to a foraging area instead of water in order to provide the bees with the necessary food reflects the complexity of their role in sustaining life. Firstly, much like women carry drinking water in some parts of the world, honey bees carry pollen, thus enabling food to grow through pollination. This highlights the role of women as bearers of life and as caretakers of the well-being of their respective families and the society at large. Secondly, the depiction of women carrying bees highlights the important role bees play in plant pollination, which is crucial for the cultivation of food. The absence of pollination would threaten the existence of many plant species with direct consequences for human nutrition. Women are the carriers of water, which ensures survival, and so are bees, thus ensuring the survival of the ecosystem. Thirdly, the link between a beehive and water can be illustrated with the symbolic movement and interconnectedness of the elements of life. At the same time, the water in the hive, brought there by the bees, is essential for the bees themselves, which establishes an additional link between water, women and bees. This link between women, water and bees makes us think about a holistic approach to survival and sustainable environmental management. The photo encourages reflection on how all these elements are interdependent and how caring for one affects caring for the other. In some parts of the world, water is scarce, and a similar challenge is faced when it comes to bees as pollinators – they are dying out and are no longer found in certain parts of the world.

Bees are carried to the nearby hills, about an hour’s walk from Mojstrana, by women on their heads on special carriers called ‘sledges’ (sanke), 1903. From the catalogue titled ‘Erster und grösster Oberkrainer Handels-Bienenstand des M. Ambrožič zu Mojstrana’ by the beekeeper Mihael Ambrožič, one of the largest Slovenian bee merchants.
Women from the village of Žurge at a well at the other end of the village, where women used to fetch water from, January 1973.
In private possession of Marija Muhvič.

One of the oldest village water supply systems in the Kočevje region was built in Rajndol circa 1842. The water ran from a spring on a nearby hill through wooden pipelines into a village trough in the middle of the village. The inhabitants of the surrounding villages also fetched water from there. A similar and even older water supply system was in place in Morava. Gottscheer Zeitung, April 1965, p. 5.

A housewife is getting water from the village water supply system, Vinice, 1959.

Photo: Lojze Čampa, BEng.
The cooks employed at the Grčarice Forest Management Bureau are drawing water from a well.

The inhabitants of the town built on an island used to get their water from the town’s wells. The water was drawn up and carried by women and children in wooden and metal pails.
The Da Ponte Fountain, in the present-day Prešeren Square (formerly Muda Square), is one of the town’s largest fountains. It was connected to the mainland, from where, as early as the late 14th century, a (wooden) water pipeline was laid under the sea. It was considered one of the greatest construction achievements in the town’s rich history. The Da Ponte Fountain is named after Lorenzo Da Ponte, the town’s patron and potestate, who had the fountain built in 1666. The fountain is bridge-shaped, as symbolised by its name, and the octagonal water basin is surrounded by fifteen pilasters carved with the coats of arms of the noble local families who contributed the funds for its construction. It also features four mascarons, from which water used to jet back in the day. The fountain was used as a source of drinking water until 1898.

The Muda Square, Koper, late 19th century.
Two farmwomen are carrying water from the village well to their homes in metal vessels. In places that did not have house or village wells, water was fetched from nearby springs, streams and rivers, mostly by women and children. The women placed home-made ring-shaped pads (stuffed with sheep’s wool), on top of their heads under the pail to help them carry the heavy weight.

Rural Slovenian Istria, 1952. Photo by Andrej Pagon – Ogarev.  
A woman is fetching water from a waterhole near her farmhouse to give it to the farm animals, Brezje, Slovenske gorice, 1990s. The original photo is kept by Pavla Klobasa in Brezje, Sveti Jurij ob Ščavnici.

In Haloze, carrying water was one of the most important, but also one of the most difficult chores, as the water springs were usually in deep ravines, so water had to be carried up the steep slopes to the homestead at the top of the ridge either in a hand-held earthenware jug or in wooden shoulder baskets. Near some farmhouses there were deep wells dug in the ground or rainwater was collected in concrete cisterns, which made it much easier for people to get water, 1974.

Elderly woman. Water carrying in Haloze, 1974. The original photo is kept by Stojan Kerbler in Ptuj.

Villagers from the vicinity of Radenci fetch thermal spring water for their own use from the Petanjci spring, located outside the thermal health resort, July 1960.

Photo: Fanči Šarf.
Ritoper’s housewife in Vučja Gomila is carrying water in so-called black jugs, August 1962.

Photo: Fanči Šarf.  
A fountain, a water pump or a well
In the early 20th century, water supply in Trbovlje was an issue, so the municipality started thinking about a water pipeline. The construction of the water supply system started in 1924 and by 1930 the water supply network was 12 km long. The fact that the water pipeline reached the miners’ residential area did not mean that there was water in every house. In fact, the inhabitants of the miners’ area still had to fetch water from a water source – a fountain, a hand pump or a well that stood somewhere in the middle of the settlement. This was still the case in many places in the mid-1950s.

A well at the house owned by Marko Borušak.

Doing the laundry has always been one of the hardest jobs for women, a laborious and exhausting chore. Women did the laundry wherever there was running water – in streams, at washing sites and in laundries. It took them two days to do it. In the evening, the laundry was soaked and in the morning it was rinsed in a bucket and scrubbed on the washboard. Then it was washed with a soap solution and rinsed off by a stream or at a washing site.

Winter 1936. A woman is doing the laundry in the Trboveljščica stream.

Digital exhibition
WOMEN CARRYING WATER, Stories from Slovenian Regional Museums

Photo and text:
Posavje Museum Brežice (Andreja Matijevc, Nives Slemenšek),
Bela Krajina Museum Metlika (Mateja Černič),
Museum of Dolenjska Novo mesto (Alenka Stražišar Lamovšek),
Regional Museum Goriški muzej (Tanja Gomiršek),
Carinthian Regional Museum (Liljana Suhodolčan, Brigita Rajšter),
City Museum of Ljubljana (Blaž Vurnik),
National Liberation Museum Maribor (Simona Tripkovič),
Museum of Recent History Celje (Helena Vogelsang Novak),
Velenje Museum (Špela Regul),
Radovljica Municipality Museums (dr. Petra Bole),
Regional Archives Maribor,
Kočevje Regional Museum (Matej Rački),
Koper Regional Museum  (Tina Novak Pucer),
Regional Museum Ptuj Ormož (Monika Simonič Roškar),
Pomurje Museum Murska Sobota (Jelka Pšajd),
Zasavje Museum of Trbovlje (Gregor Jerman)

Koordinacija / Coordination: Alenka Černelič Krošelj, Andreja Matijevc, Anja Zagode

Text revision: mag. Mateja Jankovič Čurič   

English translation: Mateja Žuraj

22 March 2024

Posavski muzej Brežice, represented by Alenka Černelič Krošelj, Director

Exhibition made possible by:




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