August 19, 2022
The captivating story of the Dala Horse in American books. From small Swedish villages to the American book scene!
The year of 1939 is considered decisive in Dala horses’ history. It is the year when the Swedish wooden horse was officially introduced to the United States and became famous.
The Dala horse transitioned from being a traditional Swedish children’s toys to the national symbol of Sweden! The 2.8 m statue of the Dala horse stood proudly at the 1939 World Exhibition in New York and attracted instantly a lot of attention from the visitors and the media, becoming a celebrity.
The wooden horse statue was produced in Sweden and transported all the way to the American land. Approximately half a million visitors came to the New York fair in 1939. Sweden’s pavilion, in front of which the Dala statue was placed, described the wooden horse as a powerful symbol of Sweden, and so it remained in the hearts and minds of people!
The 1939 New York fair was not the only place the Dala horse was introduced to America! Andrea Immel writes a very interesting blog post in 2020, about the Dala horse in the American book scene.
In 1927, the Sweden-born artist Elsa Hammar-Moeschlin, who moved to Switzerland, published the book called The Red Horse in both English and German languages. The book tells the story of a boy named Peter, who receives a Christmas present from his mother: a wooden Dala horse. The horse becomes alive and is able to speak to Peter. When the horse, named Trott-trott, grows big, Peter has to hide it in the attic and then move it to the family’s summer house. When summer approaches, Peter decides to escape together with Trott-trott to a place they call “home”.
While on the road, Peter and Trott-trott meet three girls, dressed in red bonnets, red jackets and aprons with drawings on them of bright colors. When Peter looks at the girls’ clothes, and then at his horse, he realised that he is getting very close to Trott-trott’s home - Dalarna - the heart of Sweden. Trott-trott’s home turns out to be a cabin in Dalarna, belonging to a woodcarver. Peter quickly become friends with the woodcarver, who later accompanies the boy back home to his parents. Trott-trott refuses to leave Dalarna though. When the woodcarver comes back to his cabin, he realised Trott-trott has changed back to being a small wooden horse.
Elsa’s story was published by Coward McCann Publishers in 1927 and then again in 1944. In 2014, the story was included in Taschen’s anthology A Treasury of Winter - Time Tales. Elsa’s story of the Dala horse Trott-trott presented Sweden and Swedish traditions to American children.
A Treasury of Winter-Time Tales included another story of the Dala horse: Einar Nerman’s Resan till Pepparkaslandet (published by Whitman in 1934), which means A Trip to Gingerbread Land.
The story is about children riding on Christmas gingerbread cakes in the shape of animals to get to a fairytale land, where they are treated with sweets. The animals come to life, just like in Elsa’s story, which is typical in Swedish traditional fairy tales. Of all the animals, the Dala horse is one the central figures in this tale.
A more famous Swedish tale of the Dala horse, presented to the American public, belongs to Maj Lindman. Lindman’s book, titled Snipp, Snapp, Snurr and the Magic Horse, has a strong and lasting presence in the American book scene, being re-editted at least 8 times! It was first published in 1933 and tells the story of a magical horse that is able to fly with children to a fairy tale place full of sweets and then return them safely to their homes.
In 1934, Whitman published another story about the Dala horse. The author is Annie Bergman and the book is titled Dalahästan, translated in English as Karl’s Wooden Horse. The story contains the same kind of elements as the previous Swedish tales: a Dala horse that becomes alive, Christmas, a dream and and adventure with palaces and princesses.
With time, the Dala horse became more widely associated with Swedish traditions and Christmas in the United States. The book titled Per and the Dala Horse, published in 1995, tells the story of a boy named Per, who succeeds in rescuing a golden chalice that has been stolen by trolls. Per is helped by a magical wooden horse and very little in the story is about an old village or region in Sweden. The book is successful in describing Swedish traditions in the American context. The same relates Kathy-Jeff Wargin’s book book titled D is for Dala Horse, published in 2010. The story completely erases the Swedish context. The Dala horse in this book is a simple wooden toy, which symbolises Swedishness, again in the American context.
I hope you enjoyed the captivating journey of the Dala horse, from small villages in Sweden, to the American book scene!
Text and image sources:
1. Andrea Immel, 2020. https://blogs.princeton.edu/cotsen/tag/new-york-worlds-fair-1939/
2. Shya Beth, https://artofthehorse.net/2015/12/26/the-dala-horse-of-sweden/