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

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

Fig. 1: Inside the Stockholm Dala Horse Store. © Tim Bird / Lonely Planet


Professor JoAnn Conrad, a folklorist who knows a tremendous amount about  Northern European visual culture for children, was a Cotsen Research Grant Fellow several years ago.  She got in touch a few weeks ago to ask if I’d be interested in running a blog on Scandinavian picture books for the holidays.  Her idea was to take a look at appearances of the Dala horse, the most famous of Swedish toys, in Christmas books published in Europe and America 1900-1950.  JoAnn always has new, interesting insights about children’s books from this period, so the answer was an enthusiastic yes.  Enjoy this lavishly illustrated essay on ways the modern Swedish and American ways of representing the joys of Christmas to children have coincided.

Fig. 2: IKEA’s “Vinter 2020” Candles, decorated with Dala horses, Christmas trees, hearts, and goats from the online catalog.

The mix-and-match of Christmas paraphernalia, motifs, and images now often includes the Dala horse from the Dalarna region of Sweden. The bright red-colored wooden horses have been seamlessly folded into Christmas consumer lore, not only in Sweden but also in the US, as with these  IKEA “Vinter 2020” candles (Fig. 2), on which horses, houses, hearts and humans (or gingerbread people?) consort with the vaguest of cultural connections. They are just “Christmas-y.”

Fig. 3: Shop where crafts people paint Dala horses on site at Arlanda Airport in Stockholm.

Travelers to Sweden, or even those on layovers to other destinations, have long found it difficult to miss the ubiquitous Dala horses, the touristic “symbol of Sweden” in Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport (Fig. 3).

Fig. 4: 19th-century Dala horse toy excavated in Falun. Photo: Mikael Assmundsson, SVT/ Arkeologerna[i].

 The story of how these small children’s toys made by rural craftspeople were elevated into a national symbol is surprisingly complicated.  Originally the horses were small wooden toys made for children by the foresters in the Dalarna region in central Sweden and sold in local markets.   One such horse from the 19th century, was recently excavated in Falun (Fig. 4).   ‘Falun Red,’ the famous color of Swedish country houses, is  a byproduct of the copper mining process. At its peak in the seventeenth century. Falun had supplied nearly two-thirds of Europe’s copper.  The red paint used on today’s horses is a throwback to the Falun mines, where the foresters worked.

By the late 1800s, the Falun mine was in decline and in the economic fallout, many moved to the cities for work or emigrated to the United States.  At the same time, the “Culture Builders” of Sweden were looking to unify the people around a shared Swedish identity.  In that nation-building moment, the regional became national and Dalarna soon achieved the status as the “Swedish heartland.”  This was enhanced by images of Dalarna by the famous artists who made it their new home–Carl Larsson, Anders Zorn, and Ottilia Adelborg (Selma Lagerlöf, author of The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, also moved there). Traditional Dalarna handicrafts became tourist souvenirs  whose consumption, decoration, and display invited the urban bourgeoisie to participate in this new expression of Swedishness (Figs.5-6).

Fig. 5: Small child from Dalarna with toy horse. 1915. Foto by Foto Karl Lärka, Mora Bygdearkiv

Fig. 6: Bourgeois Swedish children and nanny with a small Dala horse in the bottom left ca. 1910.

Local Dalarna industries that emerged in the vacuum created by the decline of mining and logging provided these souvenirs.  One was started by the brothers Nils and Jannes Olsson in 1922 in Nusnäs. The factory, still a major producer of Dala horses, began by producing the unfinished wood horses, which were then farmed out to locals for painting and finishing.   The horses were shipped to Stockholm shops for both local and touristic consumption.   As symbols of Sweden, they became increasingly linked with Christmas from the 1890 onward, as can be seen in “On Christmas Eve” [På Julafton] by Karl Aspelin (Fig. 7).

Fig. 7: “På Julafton” engraving after Karl Aspelin from the 1898 Christmas annual Jultomten. This bourgeois family scene shows a little girl carrying a toy Dala horse.

Fantastic Horses and Their illustrators

At the fin de siècle, the twin forces of nation-building and industrialization met in the publishing industry, particularly in Scandinavian children’s print culture.   Authors and illustrators contributed to an ever-expanding market that favored one form over all others, the fairy tale.  Christmas was the busiest time for the children’s publishing industry, many houses putting out their Christmas annuals.  Heavily illustrated and featuring a high percentage of original fairy tales, this periodicals were instrumental in reinforcing Dala horse-Christmas connection (Figs. 8 and 9).

Fig. 8: Cover of a child (or tomte) riding a Dala horse by Aina Stenberg Masolle for the Christmas annual Lilleputt (Folkskolans Barntidnings förlag, 1913-1922). Courtesy of The Swedish Institute for Children’s Books.

Fig. 9: Two covers of children riding gingerbread Christmas goats for the Christmas annual Tummeliten (left: Gunhild Facks (?); right: Einar Nerman). While not Dala horses, they still demonstrate the popularity of this imaginary kind of transport. Courtesy of The Swedish Institute for Children’s Books.

The Christmas Dala horse was also a favorite subject in popular illustrated holiday greeting cards, illustrated by many of the same artists who illustrated children’s books and annuals during the first decades of the 20th century (Figs. 10-12).


Fig. 10: Cards from 1920s and 1930s by Einar Nerman (1888-1983)

Fig. 11: Card ca. 1910 by Aina Stenberg-Masolle. Her images, as do those of her contemporaries Ottilia Adelborg and Elsa Hammar Moeschlin often feature vivid, detailed examples of Dalarna costume.

Fig. 12: Card by Elsa Hammar-Moeschlin, who lived in Leksand, Dalarna after her training at the Royal Academy of Art.

Dream Journeys on Magical Horses

A popular Swedish fairy-tale theme was the Christmas Eve dream journey. Perhaps the first such example was Viktor Rydberg’s 1871 Lille Viggs äventyr på julafton [Little Vigg’s Adventures on Christmas Eve, also translated as The Christmas Tomten].  Waiting for his adoptive mother’s return home on Christmas Eve, little Vigg falls asleep, and in his dream accompanies the Julvätten, or Christmas spirit, later to renamed the Jultomten, on his visits to all families in a sled, drawn by four miniature horses (Fig. 13). Jenny Nyström, who was responsible for creating the quintessential look of the Jultomten, illustrated the second edition of Rydberg’s tale (1875).

Another fantastic Christmas dream journey is “Julnattsfärd till Sagolandet” [Christmas Eve Journey to Fairy Tale Land] in the  Christmas annual Jultomten (1899)In Elin Westman’s illustration, a long procession of children astride their toy animals, including a horse, many painted in the Dalarna style, march towards a castle.  And no wonder! During their long winter night in Fairy Tale Land, the children will be permitted to gorge on candy and sweet drinks  (Fig. 14).

Fig. 13: Jenny Nyström’s 1875 illustration for Rydberg’s “Lille Vigg.” The horses are not Dala horses, but magical ones.

Fig. 14: Illustration for Christmas Eve Journey to Fairy Tale Land by Elin Westman for. Jultomten (1899), 11. Courtesy of the Swedish Institute for Children’s Books.

Author/illustrator Maj Lindman’s 1922 Snipp, Snapp, Snurr och trollhästen [Snipp, Snapp, Snurr and the Magic Horse],[iv] the second in her series about the eponymous triplets, conjures up a flying rocking horse, which delivers the boys to a fantastic kingdom for a visit to a princess.  The characters’ clothing, bears a decidedly 20s aesthetic (Fig. 15).  Neither a Christmas book, nor one featuring a Dala horse, Lindman does refer to the toy in the die-cut pages and binding boards, providing the formulaic structure for subsequent fairy-tale dream journeys on Dala horses.

Fig. 15: Maj Lindman’s 1922 Snipp, Snapp, Snurr och trollhästen. Note the decoration with the dala horses in the illustration on the right.

The boys arrive at a palace on the hill, reminiscent of the one in Elin Westman’s Fairy Tale Land, which is also stuffed with forbidden treats for their pleasure.  Princess Törnrosa in her pink dress meets the triplets and takes them to her garden, where they indulge in cake, candy, waffles, and lemonade until they get stomach aches. When they cry for their mommy, the Princess sends them packing.  After a rather nightmarish ride home, mother comforts her sons with “wholesome” food — milk and sausage sandwiches (Fig. 16).

Fig. 16: Mores scenes from the triplets’ adventures by Maj Lindman.

Fig. 17: From Annie Bergmann’s Dalhasten (1923).

One year later, author/illustrator Annie Bergman’s Dalhästen offered another variation on the magic Dala horse Christmas dream story.  In her picture book, an unnamed small boy receives a wooden horse as a Christmas present from his father, who reminds the boy that the horse is not a real horse. The disappointed boy takes the toy to bed anyway (Fig. 17). In the next opening, the horse, having apparently taken offense at the father’s comment, says to the boy “I will show you that I am a real horse.” The boy then hitches the now very large horse to his father’s wagon and they set off to a nearby palace by hoof, not wings.  They share a constrained tea with a princess robed in pink and take a walk through the garden (Fig. 18).

Fig. 18: From Annie Bergmann, Dalhasten.

The boy and the horse are greeted by his family upon their arrival home and the father sees the “real” horse for himself.  The last illustration shows the boy back in bed, waking up in the morning with the small horse standing by his bed as it was the night before. But now the boy knows his horse is a real horse after all.

The Dala horse was also featured in poetry of the period.  In Einar Nerman’s 1947 illustrated song book Dalahästen och andra barnvisor [The Dala Horse and other Children’s Songs],[v] the illustration for the title song is a visual intertextual reference to the Dala horse in an English-language story Nerman wrote in 1946, which will be discussed in this blog’s second part.(Fig. 19).  Nerman repurposed it from  another “frightfully long horse” he created for his version of a medieval ballad, Riddaren Finn Komfusenfej[vi] (1923) (Figs. 19-20).

Fig. 19: Einar Nerman’s second take on his long Dala horse in Dalahästen och andra barnvisor (1947).

Fig. 20: Einar Nerman’s original 1923 concept.

Another song in Nerman’s collection Dalahästen och andra barnvisor,”Resan till Pepparkakeland” [Journey to Gingerbread Land] bears mention for the way it incoporates  all the elements of the Christmas Eve dream journey, with one change—substituting a gingerbread Christmas goat for the Dala horse.  This song was also based on an earlier picture book, Resan till Pepparkakslandet (1934) in which the children first stuff themselves baking Christmas gingerbread at home, then in a dream overindulge a second time in Gingerbread Land (Figs. 21-22).

Fig. 21: Illustration by Einar Nerman for the song “Resan till Pepparkakeland” in his Dalahästen och andra barnvisor (1947).

Fig. 22: Illustration by Einar Nerman from Resan till Pepparkakslandet (1934).

The Dala horse has certainly won a prominent place in Swedish Christmas picture books:  the second part of this blog will show how this toy has come to occupy a significant niche in  the American popular imagination.

[i] “Gammal dalahäst funnen vid utgrävning i centrala Falun” SVT Nyheter, July 10, 2020. https://www.svt.se/nyheter/lokalt/dalarna/gammal-dalahast-funnen-vid-utgravning-i-centrala-falun

[ii] From the website Dalahästen: en kulturskatt at http://www.dalahorse.info/index.php/Huvudsida

[iii] Full text in Swedish available online at https://litteraturbanken.se/författare/RydbergV/titlar/LilleViggsAfventyr1875/sida/3/faksimil

[iv] A copy of this is in the Cotsen Euro 20Q 40822.

[v] Cotsen Children’s Library » Euro 20Q 52035

[vi] Cotsen Children’s Library » Euro 20Q 19557