If you’re in the market for a Vardo, you can actually find a few at the Fryeburg Fair held each October in Fryeburg, Maine, just outside of Conway, New Hampshire.
If you’re not familiar with the term Vardo, you probably have heard of the term gypsy wagon or Romani wagon. The Romanis are a traditionally nomadic ethnic group, living mostly in Europe and the Americas and originating from the northern regions of the Indian subcontinent; they are not to be confused with people from Romania (Romanians) or the Romans of the ancient Roman empire. It’s estimated that there are nearly a million Roma (plural for Romanis) in the U.S. today.
A vardo is a traditional horse-drawn wagon used by British Romani people as their home. Possessing a chimney, it is commonly thought of as being highly decorated, intricately carved, brightly painted, and even gilded. The British Romani tradition of the vardo is seen as a high cultural point of both artistic design and a masterpiece of woodcrafters art. The heyday of the living wagon lasted for roughly 70 years, from the mid-1800s through the first two decades of the twentieth century.
A vardo’s design includes large wheels set outside the body, whose sides slope outward considerably as they rise toward the eaves. Beyond this characteristic, the six types of caravans differ in shape, size, placement of the wheels relative to the bed, where made, and maker. The roofs of the bow-top and open-lot types are canvas stretched over curved wooden frames; the others are roofed in wood. By the mid-1800s, the designs were almost entirely standardized, and some features are common to all types. The door is almost always in the front.
The small cast-iron cooking stove was invented in America and was available there and in Great Britain from about 1830 on and is a common fixture of the wagons. A cooking stove necessitates a chimney to vent smoke. A caravan’s chimney is always on its left side as viewed from its front doorway; as the caravan travels along the left side of the road, the chimney is in less danger from low-hanging tree limbs in that position. The stove rests in a wooden fireplace.
The wagon’s interior is typically outfitted with built-in seats, cabinets, a wardrobe, bunks in the rear of the caravan, a chest of drawers, and a glass-fronted china cabinet. There are windows on the left side and rear. Some types have clerestories which let in light and air. A bracket for an oil lamp is mounted over the chest of drawers opposite the fireplace; the chest’s top functions as a table. Waggons’ exteriors can range from fairly plain to intricately carved, painted in bright colors, and sheathed in places with gold leaf.
The vardos were typically commissioned by families or by a newlywed couple from specialist coach builders. Building the vardo took between six months to a year; a variety of woods including oak, ash, elm cedar and pine were utilized in its construction. Prized by the Romani for their practicality as well as aesthetic beauty, vardos can be categorized into six main styles: the Brush wagon, Reading, Ledge, Bow Top, Open lot and Burton. Vardos were elaborately decorated, hand carved and ornately painted with traditional Romani symbols. Much of the wealth of the vardo was on display in the carvings, which incorporated aspects of the Romani lifestyle such as horses and dogs, as well as stock decorative designs of birds, lions, griffins, flowers, vines and elaborate scrollwork. Carved details were often accented with gold, either painted or, in the most expensive wagons, the use of between 4-15 books of gold leaf applied as decoration
You can find more information about Vardo sales and preservation at http://gypsywaggons.co.uk/
Vardos are just one of the many historical exhibits at the Fryeburg Fair and you can include it in your Fall New Hampshire trip. For more info, purchase the New Hampshire Guide at Funexcursionsinabox.com