SARCHI and THE OXCARTS: 1993 marked 90 years of one of Costa Rica’s best known traditions – the hand-painted oxcart. This began at the turn of the century when a man tried a bold thing – he painted a star on the wheels of a cart he was building. Since then the oxcart has evolved, not so much in its physical makeup, but certainly in its visual styling and in the sentiment held for it by all Costa Ricans. The wooden ox-drawn cart has been in service in Costa Rica since the mid 1800s when it was introduced from Nicaragua. It was used as the common utility vehicle, but it was not uncommon to see it used in celebrations adorned with fresh flowers.
About the same time that the craftsman began painting the wheels in 1903, some other basic changes were made in the way the wheels were constructed and attached. They switched to metal axles and sectioned wheels. These sectioned wheels were inspiration for painting more elaborate designs while keeping with the original star-shaped pattern. Today’s wheel designs are still based on that original star pattern. Gradually the painted wheels became more elaborate, but the cart bodies didn’t get their first touch of paint until about 1915.
These first paintings were flowers imitating the fresh flowers they were replacing. The first background colors were dull grays and greens. Some time later a brighter, more cheerful orange appeared and soon became the standard that exists to this day. In the mid lg60’s when local demand for oxcarts dropped off due to mechanization, oxcart builders tried to improve sales by redoubling their efforts at creating artistic and beautiful carts. Tourists saw these colorfully decorated carts and began to buy them as souvenirs.
After more than 100 years of toiling along the dusty roads, the cart had risen to a respected place in the cultural artistry of the country. Another very important characteristic of the oxcarts that today’s purchasers are unaware of is the unique “voice” of each cart. When purchasing a cart in the early days, it was vital that each oxcart have its own distinctive “Lac-a-Lac” sound as it rolled along the roads. Their sounds, heard from a mile away would let a family know the men were returning from the fields or from the market. And it also announced, by its silence, if they had stopped at a local pub along the way.