The timber from this house from Wattwil in Toggenburg was felled in 1450 and 1454. Together with the house from the same period, in which the reformer Ulrich Zwingli was born, in Wildhaus SG, this is one of the few surviving examples of late medieval rural architecture of Eastern Switzerland.
However, the years have not passed over this building without leaving their mark. It has undergone a constant succession of alterations and extensions, repairs and replacements.
In the 16th or 17th century a weaving cellar characteristic of the region at that time, in other words damp and unhealthy, was installed in the house. The inhabitants belonged to the broad mass of “common people” who earned a substantial part of their meagre income by making cotton fabric as wage workers.
Finally, at the end of the 18th century, the original frame and plank building with a low-pitched “Tätsch” roof took on the form of a high-gabled, shingled smallholder’s house. Under its revised concept the Museum has widely abandoned the idea, which it sometimes applied in its early days, of restoring a building to conform to an ideal type.
Our aim today, when reconstructing a building, is to reproduce the architectural changes and developments it has undergone, and to some degree to reflect the historical, social and economic conditions of the relevant periods. In the case of the house from Wattwil, however, this principle could not be consistently applied. In the interest of structural soundness, for instance, it was not possible to reconstruct the steep gable dating from 1748 since this rough-and-ready structure would not have withstood the violent foehn winds that often blow at Ballenberg. It was also decided not to provide the interior of the building with hypothetical late medieval furnishings that may have seemed more in keeping with its external appearance.
Peasant furniture – sought-after witnesses to the past
The history of peasant furniture styles really began in Switzerland only under the influence of a belated Renaissance. It takes the form of friezes, carved ornamentation and simple intarsia mosaics. The first magnificent buffets found in the parlours of the Central Swiss peasant aristocracy date from the 16th century. This characteristic piece of furniture does not seem to have become common in the homes of the rural middle class until the 17th century. The buffet combines the functions of a cupboard, shelves and a wash stand. It matches the parlour and is often integrated into the panelling. Where rural cabinet-making is concerned, it is difficult to draw a clear dividing line between the Renaissance and the early Baroque. Renaissance forms are to be found up into the 18th century. Often there is an almost fluid transition between the early Baroque and the Rococo that enjoyed a preference in folk art. At the same time, there was a shift towards French forms of furniture design. The dresser developed at the court of Louis XIV began its conquest of the peasant household in the second half of the 18th century and was followed by the four-poster bed and the sofa. Painted furniture appeared in the alpine region from the 17th to the 19th century. In Switzerland the finest examples of painted peasant furniture come from the two Appenzells, Toggenburg and from the Canton of Berne. The very late Rococo period inspired figurative painting. The wedding cupboard was decorated with pictures of the bride and groom, their possessions and also scenes from world history. This is a bright and colourful period of folk culture that we still encounter today as a part of a lively popular tradition.
Peasant furniture – an endangered
Precisely because of its great popularity, peasant furniture is one of the most endangered parts of our cultural heritage. For more than a hundred years both well-meaning collectors and unscrupulous dealers have been snatching choice items from peasant households. Only a small number of restorers are capable of maintaining and caring for them in a proper manner. Counterfeiters have also been at work for nearly a century, so that it now is almost impossible to check the authenticity of a piece of furniture whose origin is uncertain. The Museum wishes to present to the public as many original and flawlessly restored items of peasant furniture as it can.