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). https://www.roadsideamerica.com/story.

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 www.vistaprint.com

[1] https://www.roadsideamerica.com/story/16565

[2] See Conrad, “Mapping America: Re-creating in the Cartographic Imagination,” Cultural Analysis, 9 (2010) https://www.ocf.berkeley.edu/~culturalanalysis/volume9/vol9_article1.html

[3] Cotsen Eng 20Q 2540

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

Santa Claus Saves Christmas  Again!

Classic Santa Stout courtesy of Coke.

No cultural icon seems to be safe from scrutiny in these critical times.  Over the last few years, two authors have created picture books showing little readers that there’s room for improvement in Santa Land.  Is this driven by data showing that kids don’t like him roly-poly, generous, and jolly?  That they aren’t in awe of the one-man international parcel delivery service powered by reindeer that Amazon Prime has yet to beat? No, it’s his size, which is laid to the door of poor food choices at meals and snacks.  A mature elf who eats a plate of cookies at even a fraction of the houses visited on Christmas Eve is going to put on weights without regular exercise..

The stories offer different solutions to the same dilemma: can Santa lose weight in time for the Christmas Eve run?  Ralph Packard tries to make The North Pole Goes on a Diet (2017) a low-key, inspirational story about controlling weight through mindful eating and regular activity.

Vigilant Timmy the Elf. Ralph Packard. The North Pole Goes on a Diet. Illustrated by Tracy Egan. [U.S.A.: no publisher], c.2017.

One year some of the North Pole gang noticed that everybody had gotten plump, sluggish and grumpy.  Six months later Mrs. Claus tells Santa sorrowfully that his red suit can’t be let out: it is either lose weight or have a bigger suit made.

Santa on the scale.

Being an enlightened employer, Santa has a doctor, nurse, dentist, and vet up to the Pole to evaluate the team’s overall health.  The news isn’t good, but everybody takes the pledge to get fit and trim by the twenty-fourth.  Poor Santa has the most trouble finding a form of exercise he can stick with.  After failing with jazzerecise, yoga, the stationary bike, and weight-lifting, he settles into a daily hour-long walk with the dogs.  He gets into the old suit, the workshop hums with energy and good cheer, and everyone looks forward to the Welcome Home banquet on Christmas Day.  Professional losers may click their tongues at food as a reward for shedding weight as counterproductive: the loser has to substitute new ones.

The diverse North Pole team around the dinner table enjoying a healthy low-fat, high-fiber meal.

Before and after the North Pole diet…

Gently fat-shaming a beloved imaginary character to demonstrate that change is possible may be a positive strategy, but it’s not without problems. Yes, it’s good to emphasize that walking is a fine form of exercise, and yes, it’s sensible to admit that it’s hard to follow an exercise program.  But these are grown-up problems and grown-ups are not the audience for this picture book.  The author proceeded on the risky assumption that four- to eight-year-old were going to be engaged by this situation set in the North Pole.

No one in Packard’s ackowledgments noticed that at the beginning none of the characters  were drawn as visibly overweight and at the end they are unchanged after a six-month diet  Some kids will giggle at what is probably an oversight in continuity on the illustrator’s part, but there will be children so sensitive about body image that may read it as an indication that people can be overweight even though if they don’t look heavy.   They may see this anxiety reflected in themselves when they look in the mirror or at themselves in photos.  Even putting younger obese children on a diet is extremely complicated–they are still growing and haven’t developed like the degree of self-control the process takes.

Charlene Christie. Santa Claus Goes on a Diet. Illustrated by Peipei. [U.S.] ChristieSolutions, c.2012.

After stuffing himself for the first ten months of the year with Mrs. Claus’s excellent cakes, cookies and cupcakes, Santa discovers that not only can’t he get into his red suit, he doesn’t fit in the sleigh.  Mrs. Claus admits her baking has been a factor in this crisis, but quickly conjures up a no-carbs diet menu for the next sixty days: three French hen eggs and veggies for breakfast, cream of mistletoe soup for lunch, and pickled turkey legs with cranberry cider for dinner (seems cruel not to vary it a jot for all those weeks).  For exercise, Santa chases Dasher the reindeer around the yard for a hour.

Thanks, but I won’t be needing that suit after all!

He makes his goal with twelve days to spare and rewards Mrs. Claus for her cleverness with a kiss under the mistletoe, not a celebratory sweetie.  The plot is much simpler than the one in The North Pole, but the focus is squarely on Santa’s perseverance in the face of  privations, which is the right kind of silly for the picture book crowd (a comment by Christie’s son is often the springboard for a new book).  You can hear a four-year-old shriek “Yeeeeew,” at the idea of mistletoe cooked up in soup or  laugh at the ridiculous spectacle of Santa’s belly flopping while he runs after Dasher.  And the reward for this effort is not a bowl of fruit, but the pleasure of achieving a goal with the help of someone else who has your back.

As children’s book writers,Packard and Christie would probably be quite happy to designated as values educators, and the market (insofar as it can be determined on Amazon, who sells the books) has validated Christie as a successful one in the verified customer reviews.  One person notes that  “in my son’s words ‘he loved this  because Santa never gave up and ate his vegetables and because Mrs. Clause helped him.’”   Another customer touched on the difficulty of writing about the subject for children:

Diet books often give me pause as they can feed into self-esteem problems while denying the goodness of the body, no matter what the physique is. This one, thankfully, is innocent enough, even accepting Santa in the end if he fails his diet (tailor made an extra-big suit, just in case). In fact, the story, promotes good healthy habits and is funny...

A third, who tried this book on the strength of her niece’s enjoyment of another Christie picture book, was not disappointed: “This was a hit with both my 3 year old niece and my 11 year old daughter who read it to her. I recommend reading both children’s book by this author. Looking forward for more books to come. “   And more have come in the form of translations into Spanish, French, and German, and Kindle downloads.

The North Pole Goes on a Diet, on the other hand, seems not to have found an audience, in spite of its author’s good intentions. He names his avocation as  an animal rescue volunteer and thanks his two dog-children.   Perhaps he should have kept his eye on the child, instead of the dogs….