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Old Homes of New Americans

Our Neighbors, the Slovaks at Home
Chapter 14

How many Slovaks in America? -- An Interesting, Wholesome, Industrious People -- Their Folklore -- Old-fashioned Ways -- Their Beautiful Costumes -- Their Lack of Education -- Illiteracy not the Worst Fault -- The Virtues and Vices of the Slovaks -- Famous for Wire and Tin-Work -- The Proverbial Honesty of the Slovak -- How the Magyarizing Policy of Hungary drives the Slovaks to America.


No wonder that the average American becomes confused when trying to straighten out in his mind the nationality of the neighbors who come from that conglomerate nation, Austria-Hungary, and to differentiate the Slovaks from the Slovenians, the Czechs from the Poles, and the great dominating race of Magyars from the more numerous Slavs who share the same territory.

I asked an intelligent American lady, who had traveled widely and was not unacquainted with the history and nationality of Austria-Hungary, how many Slovaks she thought there were in the United States. She hazarded the guess that there might be twenty thousand. She was only five hundred and eighty thousand out of the way, but I have no doubt her guess was quite as near the truth as would be that of most of her countrywomen, or countrymen either, for that matter.

Surely a nationality with six hundred thousand representatives in the United States, a nationality that would people a city as large as Boston or Baltimore, a race that sends to the homeland some fifteen million hard-earned dollars every year, a race that sends, not its weaklings and incompetents, but the best of its brawn and muscle, its vigorous, enterprising, virtuous young men and women, is worth the sympathetic consideration of every American.

Though both are Slavs, the Slovaks must not be confounded with the Slovenians, who come from quite a different part of the Hungarian kingdom. The native habitat of the former is in the north, Along the borders of the Carpathian Mountains, and not far from the Moravians and Bohemians, whom they resemble in language and customs, while the Slovenians live in the south on the border of Croatia.

They have no splendid independent national history like their neighbors, the Bohemians and the Poles, and they are not so assertive of their individual nationality as the Magyars, to whom they are subject; but they are an interesting, wholesome, industrious people, who will add a worth-while strain of blood to our cosmopolitan nation.

Like all the Slavic races, their literature, written and oral (if we may thus speak of it), is rich in folklore, and every ruined castle (and in some parts of the Slavic country these ruins crown almost every crag) has its legend, Sometimes these legends are blood-curdling in the extreme, like the story of Csejte, where the cruel countess lived who murdered three hundred young girls, that she might bathe in their blood and thus renew her youth.

The Slovak peasants at home are neat in their personal habits, and their homes, though often very poor, are models of cleanliness. You will find the bed-coverings the special pride of the Slovaks. The feathers of nearly twenty of the plump geese which you will see in every dooryard are needed to fill only one of the great pillows, almost as large as feather beds, which are piled up on the couch often found in the living-room. Superfine are these big downy pillows in their jackets of bright cloth, covered with embroidered linen. They are evidently the joy of their owners' hearts. The old-fashioned loom has not yet disappeared from Slovak-land, or the spinning-wheel either; and spinning-bees, which are as popular as husking-bees or apple-paring-bees in some parts of America, while away the long winter evenings.

It is too much to expect of a mere man that he should describe the beautiful and unique costumes of Slovak women, so I will borrow Miss Balch's description:--

Every little village has its own peculiarities of dress, so that its people are distinguishable to the initiated, and this doubtless helps to give a strong sense of local solidarity. Within the village there is the most scrupulous adherence to custom. The kerchief knotted under the chin, apparently carelessly, is in reality arranged in certain folds and at a certain angle precisely as prescribed by local usage, and in a way that is different from that of the next place.

The colors are usually harmonious and brilliant, though in some districts a wonderful effectiveness is gained by heavy embroidery of black and white, witb no color. In many places bright-patterned stuffs, usually in large flowered designs, are attractively used for skirt, bodice, and apron. The latter is usually the show-piece in a woman's holiday costume.

The great beauty of these costumes is the embroidery, which is, indeed, with song, the chief art of the Slovak. The women do this work chiefly in the winter, when their fingers are sufficiently soft again after the field work. They are said often to embroider their patterns without first drawing them, and they work so neatly that the underside is almost as perfect as the upper.

Special units of design often have special names, like the quilting patterns of our grandmothers. Many of them seem to be quite fanciful: the "lover's eye," or the "little window," may have no visible resemblance to the object named.

Girls and married women are generally distinguished, the former as a rule by their long braids, the latter by their caps, which are usually hidden, however, under the universal kerchief. Otherwise, the dress is the same from childhood to old age. If the skirts of the district are full and short, they are short for grandmother; and if long, they are long even for the toddler of three or four.

In many places the women wear very short skirts and leather boots to the knees, like a man's. At first these boots strike the stranger as unfeminine, but an experience of what mud can be here soon converts one to their good sense.

Except in the matter of education, the Slovaks are among the most desirable of the newcomers to America, and even in this respect they are by no means at the foot of the ladder. Only about thirty per cent of them can neither read nor write, and illiteracy is by no means the worst of faults. An educated knave is usually a superlative knave, and an honest Slovak, who doesn't know his letters, but knows the right end of a pick and shovel, and has the brawn to wield them, is worth far more to America than a lily-fingered idler who has the little learning which is a dangerous thing, that makes him unable to dig, but perhaps not ashamed to beg.

I would not paint the Slovaks in too bright colors. The love of strong drink is no doubt one of their weaknesses, and in this they are inferior to their southern neighbors of Greece and Italy, who often come in the same steerage compartment.

But for their intemperate habits they are not altogether to blame. In addition to their natural love for strong firewater, which they share with all Northern nations, every opportunity and encouragement is given them to get drunk on every possible occasion. The landed proprietor, whose land the peasant rents, is often a distiller of potato brandy as well, and is not averse to the peasant's disposing of as much of his product as possible. The Jews, who monopolize the retail liquor business, are also money-lenders, and often have the peasants in their power as creditors, and are quite willing to have them get still furtherinto debt for their drink bill. The Government gets much of its revenue from the sale of liquor, and does not favor Blue Ribbon societies, and thoroughly disapproves of the W. C. T. U. and kindred organizations.

Yet, let it not be thought that the Slovaks are a drunken race. The emigrants from Ireland, Scotland, and Holland probably consume far more hard liquor per capita than the Slovaks, and the latter are by no means unable to appreciate the arguments for temperance which are presented to them with so much cogency when they reach America.

A specialty of the Slovak artisan seems to be wire and tin-work. For centuries, it is said, most of the tinware of Europe was made by Slovaks, and Slovak tinware factories in different parts of America are doing a flourishing business, because of the inherited skill of the workmen from the fatherland, When earthenware was more costly and consequently more precious than now, the wandering Slovak wire peddler was often called upon to mend the cracked pot, and it is said that his job was not considered workmanlike and satisfactory unless the old mended pot rang like a bell.

The honesty of the Slovaks at home is proverbial. The emigrants who wish to go to America can almost invariably obtain a loan at the bank, which is repaid within a few months. If for any reason the emigrant is unable to pay, his brothers or his relatives assume the debt.

When he reaches America, the Slovak does not forget the old home. Until he is joined by his family in America, and has severed the old ties with Hungary, it is said that as a rule the Slovak sends home on an average over one hundred dollars a year. This amount is usually equal to the annual income of the family to which it comes and the millions of dollars that flow back to the old home speak volumes for the generosity, the kindliness, and the integrity of the Slovak emigrant.

There is constant friction between the Slav and the Magyar, and this accentuates the uneasiness of the former, and accounts for not a few of the more than half-million Slovaks in America, where they can speak their own language and freely read their own papers and books. The policy of Hungary is to Magyarize all the peoples within her boundaries. I cannot go into the justice or injustice of this effort in this connection, but it is interesting to note that, though this Magyarizing tendency of the dominant race in Hungary tends to drive many a Slovak to America, the more gentle process by which his children are Americanized in our publiC schools is not resented, and apparently goes on apace, from the moment he sets foot on the gangplank at Ellis Island. Not the least desirable of the newcomers who step over this gangplank are the Slovaks of Hungary.

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