How to Make a Toy Pencil Dispenser in Five Steps

Three decades later I can still see in my mind’s eye that sad pile of splintery scrap wood of various shapes and sizes. Gathered loosely by a length of pink, plastic cord, the bundle leaned against the wall in a dark corner, seemingly in perpetuity. How could I possibly foresee that it would take a once-in-a-century global pandemic for an adult version of me to finish the project?

It was during one of my summer breaks from middle school. One bored afternoon I chanced upon a book about how to make toys and was instantly hooked. Its spine peeling and pages frayed, the paperback was published in the “ancient” time when my parents were still teenagers. Many of the Chinese characters in it appeared in the traditional style, which was in use before the language reform, but were occasionally accompanied by a pronunciation guide in pinyin for the benefit of readers as young as elementary school kids. I flipped through the preface, impatiently scanned the chapter titled “Preparation Work,” and couldn’t wait to make my first toy!

“Two Cubs Sawing a Log” in Mechanical Toys 机械玩具 by Lin Youyu 林有禹. Beijing: Zhongguo shao nian er tong chu ban she, 1964. (personal copy)

The toys in the first section looked simple enough. Like most of the projects cataloged throughout the book, they demonstrated the possibility of harnessing the energy of elastic bands to generate motion. I was immediately drawn to a cute pair of bears log bucking a hefty tree trunk and I felt eager to bring them to life. To make this toy, aptly called “Two Cubs Sawing a Log,” you actually needed wood and a handsaw for cutting out the parts. I had no wood, nor did I trust myself to wield a thin blade of metal with razor-sharp teeth. Neither of these deterrents curbed my ambition. I unfolded the paper carton of a tube of toothpaste, drew the bears and parts on the blank side, slowly cut them out with a pair of scissors, and assembled everything with no more than a few pieces of wire and a rubber band. A bastardized version of what was pictured in the book, no doubt, it worked just fine for me. As I pulled the handle and released it, the smiling ursine buckers, each holding one end of their efficient tool, appeared to be happily sawing away at a log. I recently dug out the diary I kept that summer and discovered that my boxboard cubs suffered a crippling leg injury in the rough hands of a neighbor’s child, their log cutting career abridged abruptly. (I had no recollection of the incident, but–according to what I jotted down in the diary entry–I cried.)

“The Goose-Head Boat” in Mechanical Toys

The next toy I attempted to make was the “Goose-Head Boat”. At first I tried cheating with my cardstock trick, believing that a layer of candle wax could keep the structure afloat, but I had no luck this time. My cardboard goose made a nosedive into the creek and escaped from view. This regrettable outcome didn’t dampen my enthusiasm the slightest bit. I searched around the house and managed to rescue a boat model out of a pile of discarded odds and ends. I adapted the propeller–made of two interlocking slips of plywood wound up by a rubber band–for the tiny wooden barge. We didn’t have a camera in those days, but I found in my diary an illustration that documented my finished work, viewed upside-down from the bottom of the boat.

My illustration of the paddle boat.

To set sail, one would wind up the propeller until the rubber band was twisted tight. When released, the spinning prop would cause the boat to chug along “with a bone in its teeth,” water splashing merrily at its tail.

The Greatest Temptation

There were other interesting and intricate toys in the book. The section “Toys on Wheels” taught children the application of eccentric disks; “Toys that Turn” contained instructions for building a zoetrope (an illustration of this ingenious pre-cinema animation device is available at Princeton’s Graphic Arts Collection blog) and a spinning carousel. In addition to the paddle boat, the book covered varieties of moving vehicles, farm machinery (for example, a miniature “row builder” that could plow through sand or saw dust to raise a neat ridge) and bamboo copters. For reasons I can’t explain, the toy that fascinated me most wasn’t anything that spun or ran or flew, but rather something stationary–or more precisely, stationery: a pencil dispenser. It was a box with a coin slot and a simple switch mechanism, dispensing pencils at the price of two cents each. Its instructions were clearly the lengthiest of all, running eight pages long. I gazed longingly at the cross-section drawings and finished look of the machine, itching to build the toy and watch pencils rolling out at the push of the button. The dispenser called for plywood of different sizes and thicknesses, metal sheets, a metal spring, nails, and so on. Even with the materials in hand, it would be complicated to make the parts.

“The Automatic Pencil Dispenser” in Mechanical Toys

Looking back, I have to be impressed by my blind youthful optimism. I paid my classmate Lifen, the daughter of a local wooden toy factory owner, a visit. She cheerfully provided me with a stack of plywood–leftovers collected from her dad’s factory floor. For as long as I sustained my fantasy of creating the pencil dispenser, the scrap wood stubbornly occupied a corner of the kitchen. The pink cord remained untied.

Fast forward to two years ago. I met Mr. Peter Hollingsworth, the retired parent of a recent Princeton alumnus. Pete, as he is known, pursued carpentry as a serious hobby. I lived next to his workshop, where he and his brother, a former Princeton researcher, were busy building a boat that spring to celebrate their major birthdays. As I witnessed large pieces of ordinary-looking plywood carried back from the local big-box store transform, week by week, into a 22-foot-long, gleaming rowing shell for two, I decided to ask Pete how he became a master wood worker and boat builder. At one point I mentioned the pencil dispenser that I once dreamed of making as a child. I’m certain that Pete didn’t understand what he was about to get himself into when he agreed to take a look at the diagrams of the toy.

Mechanical Toys by Lin Youyu. Beijing: Zhongguo shao nian er tong chu ban she, 1964. (personal copy)

The problem was, I couldn’t recall the exact title of the book — was it “Wooden Toys” or “How to Make Toys”? And I had no idea who the author was, even though I would have no problem recognizing its subdued yellowish green cover, with the diagram of the log-sawing bears in the background. After some tenacious online sleuthing, flexing my professional research muscles, I was able to locate a copy of what was called Mechanical Toys at the Stanford University Library, the only institution in the entire United States with such a title in its collection. The copy arrived at Firestone via interlibrary loan. I studied the chapter on the pencil dispenser for two nights before fully understanding how it worked–how the parts interconnected to accomplish a series of motions, initiated by the drop of a coin into a slot and ending with the release of a pencil. When I showed the instructions to Pete, he raised his glasses above his brow, squinting his discerning eyes at the photocopies I made, and nodded with instant understanding. He didn’t need my translation from traditional Chinese scripts into English, after all.

Clockwise: Pete Hollingsworth, master wood worker; the Hollingsworth brothers and their newly built rowing shell on Lake Carnegie. Photos courtesy of Dr. Andrew Hollingsworth.

A few months after the Hollingsworth brothers launched their sleek red boat in Lake Carnegie, I unexpectedly received two boxes from them. My jaw dropped at the sight of what was inside, for multiple reasons.

Mr. Hollingsworth produced over fifty parts, with additions and enhancements of his own, required to make the pencil dispenser.

First, Pete had made the parts of the pencil dispenser for me–two sets, no less, in case I needed practice with assembly! I was and still am afraid to ask how much of his time and mental effort I gratuitously claimed, even knowing that he’s no rookie carpenter. Second, it wasn’t until I held the actual parts in three dimensions and examined them against Lin’s pages and Pete’s assembly instructions that I fully absorbed the complexity of the project. The fluid motion of the coin, push button, shuttle device, and pencils all depended on a precise execution of the design, so that no part would get stuck in the middle of selling you a pencil at five cents apiece. (Two-cent coins were out of circulation in China, so it was necessary to raise the price to one US nickel, which was conveniently identical to the former in diameter.)

Pencil dispenser under construction in Pete’s shop. Photo courtesy of Pete Hollingsworth.

Adding to my awe, Pete had made alterations to almost every part in the original design, gluing a slim bar here, attaching a square block there, and cutting a groove yet elsewhere. His revised version contained more than 50 parts, not 35, as in the book. All this tinkering would stabilize the structure, enhance precision and performance, and bring added aesthetic and safety benefits, preventing nails from protruding through the front board. Unlike my cubs, with words like “anticavity” and “gum protection” tattooed on their backs, this box was going to withstand good pushing, prodding, and commotion and still reliably deliver the next pencil even if my old neighbor’s child’s child showed up to play with it.

Lastly, I was floored by Pete’s handwritten assembly instructions, which exceeded the chapter in the book at ten pages long. The instructions, meticulously phrased and accompanied by helpful 3D illustrations, broke the process down into digestible steps. (If IKEA were to hire Mr. Hollingsworth, no one would ever fail at putting together any furniture.)

Mr. Hollingsworth’s assembly instructions, which could easily be titled “The Pencil Dispenser for Dummies,” were as compelling as comic strips in certain parts. He hand drew all the illustrations, using no ruler, compass, or CAD computer software.

In case you wonder what this robot-like image is about, it demonstrates how to mount a key freely-moving component in the box.

So I immediately set to work and assembled the parts with great excitement and no glitches. Voilà! I had a pencil dispenser. My childhood dream came true. The end.

Except, alas…that fairytale ending wasn’t true. The truth of the matter was that I committed my established sin of inaction. I dutifully purchased all the materials and tools listed in Pete’s instructions, but wouldn’t start. Christmas came and went in 2019; the parts remained dormant in the boxes, which stared down at me from my bookshelf day in and day out. For a good while it seemed that they might suffer the same fate I unjustly assigned to the plywood I had solicited from the good-natured toy factory owner so many years ago. Was it the side effect of finally comprehending how complex the project was and how unforgiving the device would be to my clumsiness? Was it the laughable silliness of being intimidated by my unfamiliarity of carpentry? “12” Trigger clamp, such as DeWalt DWHT83140,” the fourth item on Pete’s You Will Need list, vaguely recalled a machine gun, and I hadn’t given much thought to how it was to be used. “Carpenter’s glue, such as Titebond II”–how good must I be with this stuff in order not to ruin any of the precious parts?

Then came January 2020. The world was suddenly distracted by a city named Wuhan.

Early February. On two separate days I experienced awful, unexplained symptoms and received a negative flu test result. The university health service was sure there were no suspected cases of Covid-19 on campus. Feeling 49% reassured at most, I holed up in bed and self-quarantined–still wondering to this day what I had.

Mid-March. I converted a corner of my bedroom into an office space, just for one week, you know, until we would be allowed to return to campus.

One week stretched into a fortnight, a month, a season…

I couldn’t pinpoint any particular stimulus, but my sense of guilt before Pete and disappointment at my procrastination must have tipped over to outweigh my usual apprehension of mistakes and failure. One evening after work, instead of sinking into the couch and continuing my compulsive doomscrolling, I reached for a box of parts, reviewed the ten-page handwritten instructions, and set to work. It took me two nights to put together the pencil dispenser while carefully taking note of the abundant reminders and precautions Pete had laid out for me.

I put the lid of the dispenser on, slipped a nickel into the slot, and pushed the button. A pencil rolled out of the box, clanking down the slide, just like in the mesmerizing scene I had played out in my head so many summers ago. The tween-age me wasn’t nearly imaginative enough, though, to picture a grown-up version of myself sanding and painting the box, looking practically legit with one of my last KN95 masks on, at a time when I couldn’t invite any friend to play with the toy. My only option was to share a video clip.

Having completed a project I initiated three decades ago (with great success, you might say), I am happy to share the five crucial steps required to make a toy pencil dispenser:

Step 1: Never give up on your childhood dream.

Step 2: Two options are open for this step.

Option A: keep honing your carpentry skills;

Option B: if Option A isn’t feasible due to an allergy to metal saws or a lack of manual dexterity or both, opt to hone research skills instead–like I have prudently done by pursuing the (almost) equally useful trade of library and information services. This way you may have the diagrams available when you are so lucky as to encounter a carpenter generous with his talent, skill, and time.

Step 3: Receive ready-made, fine-tuned parts of the toy.

Step 4: For extra at-home time, wait for a global pandemic.

Step 5: Assemble.

The Toy Book and Its Author

Mechanical Toys was published by the China Juvenile and Children Publishing House in 1964, issued as one of the installments in the “Handbook of Science and Technology Activities for Youth” series. Other topics covered by the series included how to grow grains, oil crops (soybean, sunflower, etc.) and cottons. The first half of the 1960s–sandwiched between the disastrous Great Leap Forward and the yet more disastrous Cultural Revolution–was considered a period of readjustment, when China shifted its preoccupation from ideological fervor to agricultural and industrial recovery. The handbook series reflected China’s aspiration to equip the next generation of citizens for advancing the nation’s science and technology. This, by the way, was the same period when the classic editions of One Hundred Thousand Whys [Cotsen 32611], the hugely influential popular science book series for children, were published by the Shanghai-based Juvenile and Children’s Publishing House.

Lin Youyu, the 102-year-old retired science teacher at his home in July 2020. The cover of Mechanical Toys can be spotted among the piles of educational publications by Lin (Image source:

Curious about who could possibly deem the pencil dispenser a craft project suitable for children, I did a little research about Lin Youyu, the author of Mechanical Toys. (Okay, that doubles as a veiled expression to airbrush my ineptitude for thirty years at building a toy from a book intended for readers as young as those who still needed help with reading words like “earthworm” 蚯蚓 and “jolt” 颠簸.) Lin was an elementary school science teacher in Shanghai when his book was published. He was in charge of one of three “science and technology stations” that loaned science curriculum equipment to the Shanghai school system. Lin made hundreds of specimens, models, wall charts, and pieces of laboratory equipment himself. He turned 102 years old in 2020 and made news after zoological specimens he built in the 1960s were restored by the Shanghai Natural History Museum and put to use again in his old school.

In Praise of an Unreliable Memory

One big surprise of my saga with the pencil dispenser was how I did and didn’t remember the summer I spent with Mechanical Toys. To my adult mind, it involved the joy of discovering a fun book, the triumph of bringing the bears to life, the luck of cobbling together a functional paddle boat, and the unsatisfied desire for something so tantalizing but too cleverly designed for me to master. My diary told a different story, one I hadn’t revisited for so long that I had to trudge far down memory lane to ensure I didn’t make the details up. I learned that it was a tense time for my family and I seemed to be miserable a lot. Early in the summer my brother took the high-stakes national college entrance exam, which at the time was the only social ladder for average Chinese citizens to climb out of menial, sweated, and poorly-paid labor. While my family awaited the result and dreaded the worst, it managed to mutate into a cluster of explosives. Everybody was in a bad temper; everybody–i.e., everyone older than me–was taking it out on someone else. I was constantly on the receiving end of scolding, whether I deserved it or not. Miraculously, I had almost no memory of the gloomy, nerve-racking side of this summer, but never forgot the glowing moment of pulling Mechanical Toys off the shelf. The book lit up my small, mundane life like other beloved childhood readings. It transported me to an alternate world that was both more intricate and more straightforward, a world where I found myself not at the capricious mercy of other people’s moods, where bears were amicable partners and boats were respectful of the rules of physics, and where drama didn’t result from harsh words but a resilient loop of rubber band.

Which brings me to the question of how I will remember the year 2020. I realize I can’t fully control how it will be recorded and recalled in my brain, but if I have learned anything from “the summer I made toys,” I know which part of my 2020 is good to keep. It isn’t the moments when I was in pain, worried, panicking with a relentlessly rapid heartbeat, lonely, despondent, and mired in self-pity, but the parts where I opened my front door to a care package from colleagues during my self-quarantine; where I reconnected with old friends despite–or because of–the lockdown; where I had the good fortune of fully appreciating an artisan’s craftsmanship. 2020 was the year I finished making the toy pencil dispenser* and realized my cherished childhood dream!


I recently remade “Two Cubs Sawing a Log,” this time upgrading my material from toothpaste box to cardstock paper. I am as big a fan of the work ethic and collaborative ethos of the bears as I was when I first set eyes on the pair. If you, too, are tempted to bring the cubs to life–and like me are the type to avert a saw except when it is made of toothpaste box–you may print this revised diagram on letter-size cardstock paper and connect the joints with small staples (No. 10).

Materials and tools you will need:

  • letter-size cardstock paper
  • 1 rubber band (2.5 inches long)
  • 9 staples (No. 10)
  • scissors
  • sewing needle to punch small holes
  • pliers and (optional) flat head screwdriver to bend, unbend, and flatten staples

* Thanks least to my own doing…but I was hoping you don’t like to read footnotes.

Edited by Jessica Terekhov.

I thank Dr. Andrew Hollingsworth and Pete Hollingsworth for providing feedback on this essay and enriching it with accurate technical terms–on top of enabling me to finish the toy pencil dispenser project!

If It’s Christmas, It’s Time for Swedish Dala Horses! Part 2.

Decorated Dala horse gingerbread cookies or pepparkakor

Domesticating the Dala Horse in America

No shortage of hits on Google for Dala horse” or “Swedish horse”—Target©, Etsy, Wayfair and more all offering an array of products, some for Christmas, others more along the lines of “ethnic décor.” More than a symbol of Sweden (see in part 1), the Dala horse has been integrated into Americana as an object lesson that exemplifies how immigrants  contributed to the landscape onto which “old country” traditions are projected, reflected, and refracted.  But how did this Swedish toy  cross over to the other side of the Atlantic? Clearly this is due partly to the elevation of the Dala horse and Dalarna traditions as emblematic of the newly constructed notion of Swedishness at the turn of the last century.  But more answers can be found untangling the threads of heritage, tourism, and consumerism.

The 1939 New York World’s Fair is credited as the site where the Dala horse was introduced to America.  If the 20,000 horses commissioned from G.A. Olsson’s workshop (Fig. 1) to sell to visitors were not enough, a massive Dala horse statue was erected outside the Swedish Pavilion (Fig. 2), essentializing a particularly Americanized version of “Sweden.”

Fig. 1: Olsson’s first ad describing their success at the NY Fair.

Fig. 2: Fashion shot by Louise Dahl-Wolfe in front of the Swedish Pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Harper’s Bazaar, August 1939.

Perhaps inspired by the Dala horse at the Swedish Pavilion, similar statues popped up in Minnesota and Michigan–areas with large Scandinavian-American populations (Fig. 3). The statue in Mora was presented to the community “as a reminder of their cultural heritage and as a tourist attraction, making the connection between immigration, heritage, and commerce.  But these gigantic statues also fit into the mid-century American landscape constituting one of the many “educational” destinations along the family “road trip” of the 1950s and 60s. [1].

Fig. 3. Gigantic Dala horse statue in Mora, Minnesota (1971).

These monumental statues, were not the first sightings of Dala horses in the U.S., however.  These came in the form of children’s picture books.

Dala Horses in American Children’s Books:

In 1927 Swedish artist Elsa Hammar-Moeschlin, who had lived in Dalarna from 1907-1914 before moving to Switzerland, simultaneously published The Red Horse [3] in English and German [Das rote Pferd].  Although there was no Swedish “original” edition, the setting, the illustrations, and the Dala horse central to the dream journey all speak to its Swedish origins. Moeschlin  departs radically from the conventions of Swedish children’s stories discussed in Part 1 after its rather conventional opening where Peter receives a wooden Dala horse for Christmas from his mother.  Peter first talks to the horse, wishing he were bigger, and when he answers, and Peter begins to feed it.  The horse, “Trott-trott,” grows so fast that Peter has to hide him in the attic and then smuggle him into the backyard summer house.  When Peter realizes it’s nearly time to open the summer house, he and Trott-trott set out for “home” (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4: Peter and Trott-trott embark on their adventure in The Red Horse (1927).

Traveling so long and far that they “no longer had to be afraid that the police might be following them,” Peter grows weary of what should have been a grand adventure, and longs to sleep again in a bed.

Then “one morning they met three strange girls upon a street (Fig. 5). These girls were really almost as strange to him as the little red horse itself. They had on red bonnets and red jackets, and aprons that were as bright as their jackets. When Peter looked at these girls, and compared their bonnets and jackets and aprons and the flowers upon them with his own riding horse, he said to himself quietly that, surely pretty soon he would be reaching Trott-trott’s home.”   While Moeschlin is identifying here that the horse and girls are from Dalarna, she was not especially attentive to the accuracy of  details.  Writing for a non-Swedish readership, her illustrations are evocative, not ethnographic.

Fig. 5: Peter and Trott-trott encounter the three “strange” Dalarna girls.

 Trott-trott’s “home” is the woodcarver’s cabin in which he was made.  After arriving, Peter tells the story of their adventures on the journey.  After several day’s rest, the old man accompanies Peter home by train, but without Trott-trott who refuses to go.  Peter’s mother is overjoyed to see him, but makes the strange admission that the police “really did not know how to look for little children.” The woodcarver says goodbye after eight days, and discovers upon his return that Trott-trott has changed back to a little wood horse because “life isn’t always gay.”

Fig. 6: Inside the woodcarver’s cabin, where Peter recounts his adventures

Elsa Hammar-Moeschlin’s highly idiosyncratic story was published by Coward McCann Publishers in 1927 and again in 1944.  It was given new life in Taschen’s anthology A Treasury of Winter-Time Tales (2014, c. 2011). A misguided reviewer  asserts that The Red Horse was traditional tale, even oral in origin because it “comes as close to a standard Aarne-Thompson classification as we see in this volume. (Magic Items…numbers 560 through 649).”  Actually what Moeschlin’s original story does is present an ersatz Sweden and Swedish tradition to American children, complete with the Dala horse.

Fig. 7: Nerman’s image from Resan till Pepparkakslandet on the cover for the Taschen collection A Treasury of Winter-Time Tales.


 A Treasury of Winter-Time Tales also includes a reprint of Einar Nerman’s Resan till Pepparkakslandet (1934), translated as A Trip to Gingerbread Land and published by Whitman in 1939) and a detail from an illustration was used on the cover (Fig. 7). In Sweden, Resan till Pepparkakslandet  has gone through six different editions, the latest in 2016, but Whitman’s 1939 edition was its only separate appearance in the United States. The story of children riding on Christmas gingerbread animals to a fantasy land where they gorge themselves with sweets is familiar to Swedish children, but not to Americans ones.  Similarly the gingerbread animal that come to life, whether horse, pig, goat, is a pervasive visual motif in Sweden that has no counterpart in the United States.

 Whereas the quirky picture books by -Hammar-Moeschlin and Nerman did not go into multiple editions in the US, the opposite was true for Maj Lindman’s Snipp, Snapp, Snurr and the Magic Horse (Fig. 8),[4] a translation of Snipp, Snapp, Snurr och trollhästen (1922), which had a sustained and lasting presence in the American picture book scene, going through at least eight editions, the last in 1964.

First published in 1933 as part of a set by the Albert Whitman Co., and promoted by the Junior Literary Guild, the timing of their release during the Depression was critical to Snipp, Snapp, Snurr series’ success.  Although not a book about a Dala horse, Snipp, Snapp, Snurr and the Magic Horse nonetheless had important connections to contemporary Swedish stories incorporating the motifs of a magical flying horse, a fairy tale kingdom full of sweet treats, and the safe return home.  Lindman’s implicit message to appreciate one’s lot in life resonated to Americans living through hard times and her skewed, reductive vision of Swedish life reflected in the formulaic, very white world of her triplets must have somehow satisfied American nostalgic fantasies for some imaginary “old country” where time had held still.  That the books no longer had a place in children’s reading in their country where they originated did not matter.

Fig. 8: Cover of Maj Lindman’s Snipp, Snapp, Snurr and the Magic Horse (1933).

A fuller understanding of how the Dala horse established itself in the American imagination can be seen in the publishing history of a fourth translation of a Swedish picture book.  In 1934, Whitman published Annie Bergman’s Dalahästan (1923) as Karl’s Wooden Horse (Fig. 9). Bergman’s book was originally published in 1931 by Laidlaw Brothers in Chicago.  Laidlaw was bought by Whitman, a subsidiary of Western Printing in Racine, Wisconsin, to gain a competitive advantage in the emerging market for low-priced children’s books.

Fig. 9: Covers of Annie Bergman’s original Swedish edition of Dalahästan (1923) and the Whitman adaptation Karl’s Wooden Horse (1934).

Translating and/or adapting books from other countries without proper credit to the creators had been a cost-saving strategy utilized for decades by nineteenth-century firms with lines of picture books.    All the American editions of Karl’s Wooden Horse (1931, 1932, 1933, 1934, 1938, 1944 and 1970) attribute the story to Lois Donaldson and only the illustrations to the real author/illustrator Annie Bergman.   At Whitman Donaldson “authored” several other fantasy books by European authors that credited just the artists. They included another of Maj Lindman’s books, retitled Greta in Weatherland (1932); Smokey, the Lively Locomotive (1933),  a free prose adaptation of the 1926 rhymed Die liebe Eisenbahn [The Dear Railroad] by Professor Wilhelm Schulz; Runzel Punzel (1933), derived from Aleksej Remizov’s 1928  Runzel-punzel: Die Geschichte Zweier Mäuslein Erzählt, illustrated by Mathilde Ritter; and In the Mouse’s House (1936), an English version of  Albert Sixtus’s 1930 Im Mäusehäuschen, also illustrated by Ritter.   Clearly Whitman was looking to these European books as ready-made material to boost overall the number of publications.  Ironically, this strategy, aided by lax copyright restrictions and perhaps war-time confusion, allowed a selection of cultural effects, including the Dala horse, to circulate in America.

Dalahästan and Karl’s Wooden Horse are clearly the same story — Christmas, after-bed dream adventure, palace, princess — with some minor, but telling modifications. There is no father-son contest over the nature of the horse, the motivation for the nocturnal journey, in Donaldson’s version.  Instead of the boy’s father telling him it is not a real horse, which sends him to bed sad, in the American version, the father assures the boy (renamed Karl) “Now you have a real horse,” and Karl goes to sleep.  In Donaldson’s revision, Karl just “sees” that his horse has grown into a big wooden horse, “all at once,” requiring an additional image by Bergman, which was not present in the original Swedish (Fig. 10).

Fig. 10: Additional page in Karl’s Wooden Horse. Annie Bergman signed it in the lower left-hand corner.

Bergman’s Dala horse story, like Lindman’s Snipp, Snapp, Snurr series, never made it out of the 1920s in Sweden, but maintained a presence in American children’s book publishing well into the late 20th century.  This gives a new insight into the Dala horse’s meaning as a cultural symbol: if, from the American perspective, Sweden is held in the “ethnographic present” then references to a “traditional past,” however commoditized, maintain meaning.

Dala Horses’ New Place in an American Context

Over time, the Dala horse has been decoupled from specific Swedish children’s books and more generally associated with Swedish tradition and Christmas in the United States.   As a free-agent,  the Dala horse plays a role in new(ish) narratives, or at least stories in which the Dala horse had never been a character. In a plot line reminiscent of the 1986 David Bowie/Jim Henson movie Labyrinth, Ursula K. LeGuin’s 1992 Ride on the Red Mare’s Back (Fig. 11), conflates the journey on the Dala horse with a changeling story (a  traditional Migratory Legend, in which trolls have abducted a small human child). In Le Guin’s version, the older sister’s rescue of her abducted little brother would not have been possible without the magical transformation of her beloved toy Dala horse, who leads her to the trolls’ lair. This journey is no longer to a fantasy dreamscape in the sky, full of candies and cakes, but to the underground lair of horrible trolls.

Fig. 11: Cover image to Ursula K. LeGuin’s A Ride on the Red Mare’s Back (1992)

Two more picture books demonstrate how the Swedish wood toy has been Americanized into a kind of ersatz “Scandinavian-esque.”(Figs. 12-13).

Fig. 12: cover to Per and the Dala Horse (1995)

Fig. 13: Cover to Kathy-Jeff Wargin’s D is for Dala Horse (2010).

Per and the Dala Horse inserts a Dala horse into a standard fairy tale plot of the unpromising youngest brother of three, who proves himself.   Per succeeds with the aid of his magical helper, the wooden horse, in rescuing a golden chalice (!) which has been stolen by trolls.  Very little in the story originates in “Swedish village from long ago,” including the costume (the shoes are very inauthentic), but the tale can now pass for Swedish tradition in the American context. Similarly, D is for Dala Horse: A Nordic Countries Alphabet [sic] has abandoned all of the Swedish context: the Dala Horse is stripped of both narrative context and the associated magical properties.  Now it is simply a wooden toy — a miniature metaphor functioning like its gigantic predecessors to signify a generic “Swedishness” that can be consumed.

And so, the Dala horse’s journey, from Dalarna cottages to homes in Stockholm, to children’s books and store shelves in America is complete.

Snipp snapp snut – och så var sagan slut!” — God Jul!Online Christmas Card, avail. At


[2] See Conrad, “Mapping America: Re-creating in the Cartographic Imagination,” Cultural Analysis, 9 (2010)

[3] Cotsen Eng 20Q 2540

[4] A copy of the 1944 translation is available online Online – HathiTrust Emergency Temporary Access » Eng 20 12895