The Painted Horses of Sweden
August 14, 2014 5:44 AM   Subscribe

First they're carved, then they are dipped, and finally they are painted. In the late 1930s, the Dalahäst (Dalecarlian horse, or Dala horse to Americans) made the transition from traditional home-made Swedish toy to Swedish symbol when they became the centerpiece of the Swedish Pavilions at the 1939 World's Fair. Although many (Scandinavian-)Americans associate the brightly painted wooden horses painted in the kurbits style with yuletide decor, the toys have no seasonal assignation for Swedes.
posted by julen (16 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

This is a really awesome post. Thank you julen!

And if you, like me, love both Dala horses AND dinosaurs, here is something you will REALLY like. (I am in no way affiliated with this store. I just want all the Dala Dinos).
posted by bibliogrrl at 6:21 AM on August 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

Here is an article about my local Dala horse.
posted by bibliogrrl at 6:23 AM on August 14, 2014

"Maybe if we built a giant badger?"
posted by Fizz at 6:53 AM on August 14, 2014

Cool! I've seen those around but had no idea what they were or where they were from. I stupidly assumed they were South American in origin.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:58 AM on August 14, 2014

That was really interesting! Thanks for the post.
posted by harrietthespy at 8:07 AM on August 14, 2014

Nice post, thanks for sharing it! I've never heard of Dala horses before.
posted by Daddy-O at 8:16 AM on August 14, 2014

My husband made a Dala rocking horse for our daughter. It's still going strong.
posted by mogget at 9:20 AM on August 14, 2014 [5 favorites]

Oh, bibliogrrl ... it's purple! I've never seen a purple horse - Dala, I mean. Am I missing out?
posted by allthinky at 9:23 AM on August 14, 2014

Julen, thanks so much for this. My grandmother had all kinds of kurbits-painted stuff around her house when I was growing up, and I never knew anything about it. I mean, I have a horse, but it all just seemed sort of overly simplistic to me.

This post really helps me appreciate it!
posted by allthinky at 9:30 AM on August 14, 2014

Even available as as a rug.
posted by jan murray at 9:42 AM on August 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

My Mom was really into her Swedish heritage, so we had a traditional Dala horse for the longest time. Though we called it a "Dalarna Horse", lord knows why, which wasn't technically invalid, but wasn't exactly right either, which is pretty symbolic of our Swedish heritage, reconstructed piece by piece. Later she got into dolls woven from corn husks or wheat, and the traditional wood red horse was replaced with a more restrained modern one, shaped out of wheat stalks, buff yellow wrapped with a Swedish-blue ribbon, which fit the decor better too.

A few months after she died we were looking at the shelves in the family room and realized that neither the original Dalarna horse, nor the newer wheat one, was in the spot where we were sure they had sat, among all the pottery and ornamental tea kettles we'd given her over the years. Our best guess is that she had passed them on to some other relative who was also into heritage and decoration, some great-aunt or young niece. If I was more mystical I'd say that when her spirit left her body it must have seen the beautiful horse and jumped on it to ride off to wherever it was going. She'd been given a horse named Butch to ride to school as a young farm girl, hated cars and traffic, so it made some sense. I should probably do some research; maybe there's an old Swedish tradition of preparing a horse figure as a grave good for the spirit to use for exactly that purpose. Maybe she had been preparing for that all along.

It's not likely though. She was pretty damn rationalist, and so am I. And yet. If you're dealing with primal stuff like a plant's need to push its stalk above the ground, a body losing its life force to go back, and the connection between a girl and her horse, maybe you just have say what heck, accept a few things you wouldn't normally.

I think I need to go shopping for a horse.
posted by benito.strauss at 9:49 AM on August 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

That rocking horse may be the most awesome thing ever! My 3 year old self is completely jealous.

There are also dala pigs and chickens, but the horse is the classic form.
posted by julen at 10:53 AM on August 14, 2014

If you ever want to see a collection of large Dala horses in a thoroughly charming midwestern town, go to Lindsborg Kansas. Children in the town even attend "Camp Dala" in the summer.

Lindsborg is also home to the acclaimed National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson. He and his wife Kathy own Small World Gallery in Lindsborg and they are so friendly and fascinating to talk to. They can tell you all about the town and the Dala horses.

The biggest Lindsborg Dala horse is in front of Hemsjold. Stop inside Hemsjold and you will find a workshop where the horses are still made by hand. You can have resident artist Shirley Malm personalize one for you. She paints every one! If you have a child in tow, she might give him/her a small wooden Dala cutout.

Lindsborg's dalas are a neat piece of roadside Americana.

This little Kansas community has inspired other artists as well. The 125 Swedes that founded Lindsborg would probably be pretty proud of the place (and it's dala horses everywhere!) today.
posted by Ostara at 12:27 PM on August 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

Thank you for this post, julen. My gent comes from good Wisconsin Swedish stock, and I got a little Dala horse for the Christmas tree a few years ago. It's very cool to learn about the tradition.

Our local place for all things Scandinavian is stuffed with Dala horses at Christmastime. (Also, tiny elderly Scandinavian ladies lined up out the door to buy lefse and meatballs. It's a great place, but avoid Saturdays in December.)
posted by Orange Dinosaur Slide at 1:42 PM on August 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh man, I loved these as a kid! I used to have a couple of little ones, I wonder where they ended up...
posted by sarcasticah at 5:54 PM on August 14, 2014

Our fireplace mantle here in Los Angeles has our dalahäst on it year-round :)
posted by starscream at 9:39 AM on August 15, 2014

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