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

Christmas: Made in China

“Fotang is a small ancient water town south of the Yangtze River. It is my father’s hometown.” So begins “Made in China,” a deftly written short essay and an unlikely Christmas story published in Pipa, a magazine for young learners of Chinese as a second language. The theme of the issue, dated November 2017, was Christmas.

Cover of the Pipa magazine, Vol. 5, no. 6, November 2017, a special issue on Christmas.

Launched in 2013, Pipa is a bi-monthly magazine designed for children who are learning the Chinese language outside China. The magazine title, “Pipa” (枇杷), refers to the loquat, a yellow-skinned fruit that resembles an apricot. “Loquat” is a playful rebellion against the slur “banana” for ethnic Chinese living in a Western country. Regarded as having lost touch with their Chinese cultural heritage, identity, and values, they are disparagingly compared to a banana, which is “yellow on the outside, white on the inside.” The flesh of a loquat is as yellow as its skin, implying the magazine’s ambition to connect Chinese American children with the culture of their ancestral land. (In the Chinese language, “yellow skin” is not a derogatory description: true insults come from not embracing the color, rather than using the term.)

Loquats (Image source: Pxhere.com)

Each Pipa issue is neatly organized around a theme and presented in columns featuring illustrated stories, interviews, informational text, poetry, rhymes, craft, games, and children’s writing and art. All contents, except for works submitted by children, are contributed by native Chinese writers but tailored for the limited language competency of children who are learning the language in an English-dominant environment. Pipa stands apart from most Chinese-language reading materials, which are either intended for native Chinese children or translated from popular works originally in English and other languages, or both. Chinese culture, history, and literature, as well as Chinese American life, are its main subject matter.

“Made in China,” written by Caomao and illustrated by Xiaoweiqun. In Pipa, Vol. 5, no. 6, November 2017. (Cotsen 153521)

In “Made in China,” Caomao continues: “As I remember, there the roof tiles were black, the walls were whitewashed, the trees were lush, and the aged stone pavement had a bluish gray sheen. On clear days, you could hear roosters cock-a-doodle-doo; on rainy days, you would listen to rain drops splatter. In winter, the smell of ham and brown sugar was everywhere.” (13) Farmers made a living by selling bok choy and rice and trading live hens and ducks at the market. Nobody knew how long life had been like this.

“Made in China,” in Pipa (Cotsen 153521)

Change started two decades ago when people opened factories in town, making small merchandise like toys, towels, and buttons. “Since then there were always the rumbling of machines, the honking of vehicles, and the raised voices of people speaking into phones. The odor of car exhaust hung in the air.” (14) Then, a decade ago, the locals learned a novel word—sheng dan jie (Christmas). Factories big and small began producing Christmas goods. Streams of trucks drove into town and carried away loads and loads of Christmas products. Where did they go? Someone said they would be shipped to Europe or America, because people in those places needed lots and lots of Christmas trinkets. (14)

“Made in China,” in Pipa (Cotsen 153521)

Migrant workers came from faraway places to earn a living here. They had no idea what Christmas looked like in America and Europe, but they always wore Santa hats in the factory–not for fun or to look good, but to block glitter. Once the colorful powder crept into hair, it clung fast no matter how hard you wash. Still at the end of the day, glitter covered their faces and bodies, and found its way into their ears and nostrils. (14)

“Made in China,” in Pipa (Cotsen 153521)

Townsfolks did not celebrate Christmas. From this day on, workers took their well-earned break, because no one would expect new orders after the start of the next holiday season. Migrant workers would not return until after the Chinese New Year to get ready for the coming Christmas. The town became much quieter: “On clear days you could hear cock-a-doodle-doo, and, on wet days, the pitter-patter of rain drops. Between black tiles and white walls wafted once again the delicious smell of ham and brown sugar.” (15)

“Made in China” is an exquisitely composed essay-story, contrasting two carefully edited images of life in an old-fashioned town before and after it became China’s so-called “Christmas Village.” As the manufacturing center for Christmas merchandise, Fotang (佛堂) has an uncanny name, the literal meaning of which is “Buddha’s hall.” The town is administratively part of the city of Yiwu, the seat of the world’s largest small commodities market. Though on a minor scale, the essay recalls Mardi Gras: Made in China (2005), a documentary that traces the life cycle of glittering festival beads from New Orleans back to a factory compound in rural China, where the cheap disposables were made by workers as young as teenage girls fresh out of middle school.

The Christmas story of Fotang, written at the reading level of second and third graders without compromising the beauty of the language and illustrated in warm rosy watercolors, recapitulates the massive and complex history of globalization as it intersected with a tiny old Chinese town from the turn of the twenty-first century. Caomao’s economical use of language is remarkably effective, immersing us in the sights, sounds, and smells of the water town. (The ham mentioned twice in the essay is not any average processed meat, but the prized dry-cured Jinhua ham, a millennium-old product unique to the region.) The old-town life sounds charmingly peaceful, although poverty, elided in the text, must have played a big part in transforming “Buddha’s hall” into the “Christmas Village.” Environmental costs and health risks are suggested between the lines.

It must be pointed out that the changing reality of Fotang and Chinese society is more than can be summed up by the facile dichotomy between an idyllic agrarian community then and a booming manufacturing base now. For one thing, as Fotang has been exporting Christmas products to Europe, America, and an expanding global market, along with Hollywood movies, English-language learning, and Starbucks, “Christmas” has been woven into the fabric of a largely secular Chinese society. Merchants love Christmas for introducing yet another festive excuse to encourage shopping and spending. Young families even try to celebrate the holiday with children the “proper” Western way, one involving tabletop Christmas trees and stockings. The impact of globalization has worked in both directions. The culture of Chinese-Americans’ ancestral land that Pipa hopes to channel is not fossilized in five-character quatrains of the Tang dynasty, but is an evolving organism, continually exchanging elements with the larger world, modifying and being modified by the latter.

My childhood friend complained that she couldn’t find a good stocking for her toddler son. She lives in a big city only two hours away from Fotang, but for reasons beyond the knowledge of average consumers like myself, made-for-export products are not necessarily readily available in Chinese stores. As children we used to each have a stocking from my aunt, who worked in a Shanghai tapestry factory that made and exported embroidered stockings. I put my foot into it and found it a poor “sock.” Bemused by what a sock so huge was for (Aunt never mentioned it, and now that I think back I am not sure if she knew), I still loved the bright and merry pattern of jingle bells on it and would pull it out of the wardrobe to admire every so often. My friend said she was looking for a stocking as pretty as the one I gave her in the third grade. After the phone call I placed an order for a few with felt Santas and reindeer on them from a major online store owned by a certain Princeton alumnus, planning to take them to China on my next trip. The soft stockings came in a rustling plastic bag with a sticker on it: Made in China. It’s going to be a round trip home for the big sock.

(Edited by Jessica Terekhov, PhD Candidate in English, Princeton University)

Source:

Caomao and Xiaoweiqun (illustrator). “Made in China.” Pipa: The Magazine for Chinese Speaking Kids in North America, vol. 5, no. 6, November 2017, pp. 13-15.

Acknowledgment:

Thanks go to author Caomao, illustrator Xiaoweiqun, and Jing Cheng, editor of the Pipa magazine for granting us the permission to reproduce the text (in English translation) and images from the essay.