Women work migrations in the first half of the 20th century in Istria and the popularization of Šavrinkas today


The core of this ethnographic foto-documentary exhibition is a life story of one of Istrian egg sellers, a woman called Marija Franca from Gračišče, and an ethnographic photo comic strip of her trade route. The photo comics emerged out of research and documentation of Marija's circular route between Gračišče, the villages around Buzet and Trieste. The representation of her life and trade route includes excerpts from her interviews, interviews with her daughters, passages from her books Šavrinka stories I, II, and III as well as excerpts from the fieldwork diaries of the exhibition authors, which they wrote on route. The exhibition was hosted in Zagreb, Trieste, Rijeka and Postojna.

The dominant characteristic of Istria in the first half of 20th century was its economic backwardness and belated industrialization, coupled by transatlantic as well as seasonal and weekly work migrations to coastal towns. The majority of its population worked in agriculture, where most of the fertile land was in the hands of the few farmers, and the smaller, fragmented, largely infertile and not easily reachable plots were left to everyone else. Frequent changes of political systems, big families, wars and the marginalization of predominantly rural - Slovene and Croatian speaking - population of Istria had all contributed to poverty, a sense of social exclusion and helplessness in terms of influencing the given situation. In such circumstances, trading, or rather smuggling, goods and merchandise between the rural and urban parts of the region - this small contraband commerce - became the primary source of income not just for individuals, but also families, even entire villages. In the mosaic of Istria's work migrations it was the women sellers who played the most significant role, and who, in the time of war and poverty, effectively became the key providers for their families. Such half-legal economic tactics were a common strategy of survival in those days, as also an exit route in times of need, dictated by crises.

Many a story has carved the routes leading from the countryside to coastal towns encompassing Istrian freight carriers, traders, smugglers, and travellers; alongside milkmaids from the northern parts of Istria, bakers, shepherds and wood traders, there were also garlic traders from Moščenice and Brseki, and potters from Raklje, Oprtal and Hum, masons from Kastavje and many other traders who would sell their produce, wares and services in the towns of Istria. One such story is also the trade route of Šavrinkas, who sold eggs between central Istria and Trieste in the period between the end of the 19th and the middle of the 20th centuries. Šavrinkas came from the towns between the Pregar plateau and the Karstic rim; from the villages of Kubed, Gračišče, Dol, Hrastovlje, Truške, Trsek, Boršt, Nova vas, Sveti Peter, Lopar, Marezige and Pomjan. They brought various items (thread, cloth, soap, petroleum, pepper...) to central Istria that they had bought in the shops of Trieste and for which they were paid in eggs. They would then carry the eggs on a weekly basis to the Trieste market, and make a small profit by selling them there. The circular route between the home village, Buzet or Motovun, and Trieste, lasted between three to four days, and the sellers would undertake it weekly.

The name that became the common term of reference for the egg sellers in central Istria was that of Šavrinkas. The people from the present-day Croatian part of the Istrian peninsula say it is because they were from the Šavrinija region. The women egg sellers from Gračišče and Kubed did not self-identify as Šavrinkas, and it was through contact with the people of central Istria that they came to know about this ethnic identification, which they subsequently internalized. The designation gradually acquired a professional connotation throughout the second half of the 20th century, but with the disappearance of the egg trade and in the context of the emergence of the new state border between Slovenia and Croatia and increase in tourism, Šavrinkas acquired new symbolic connotations linked to tradition, authenticity, Slovene Istria, and so on. As one of the sellers had put it: “We had no idea we were Šavrinkas. Now everyone is a Šavrin.” 

Authors of the exhibition: Nataša Rogelja (ISIM, ZRC SAZU) and Špela Ledinek Lozej (ISN, ZRC SAZU)