Colorful, wooden Dala horses a recognizable symbol of Sweden

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photo courtesy of Hemslöjd
VARIETY: Dala horses are traditionally carved out of wood and painted red, then adorned with Kurbits designs, a style of painting that the Swedes developed in the 18th century. Today, they can be found in many colors.

When asked what they know about Sweden, many people might say that they remember its flag is bright blue and yellow, or that the country has a king. They may say that reindeer live there and the weather there is cold. However, it would be hard to think of a more widely recognized symbol of the country than the small, red wooden horses that have become associated with the Swedish people. A number of Swedish Americans own at least one of these painted objects, called Dala or dalecarlian horses.

These horses became recognized as an emblem of Sweden fairly recently, beginning in 1939. At that time, the World’s Fair was held in New York City. One of the exhibitors was Sweden. A Dala horse nearly 10 feet tall stood in front of the Swedish pavilion, the largest such horse ever made. Pictures of the horse appeared in newspapers and magazines across the world and led to its becoming an unofficial symbol of Sweden.

Horses have always been important to the Swedes. They came to Sweden in 2000 B.C. They were even worshiped by the people who practiced the Norse religion. Some people had their horses buried with them when they died. There were even some, after Christianity came to Sweden, who were accused of using wooden horses to practice witchcraft.

In the 1600s, woodcutters from the Swedish province of Dalarna carved little wooden toys for their children to pass long hours. A favorite was a small, wooden horse. When woodcutters traveled looking for work, these horses were sold in fairs or used as payment for lodging or food.

In the 18th century, people started to paint the horses in bright colors. Because red pigment was plentiful in the iron and copper mines of Sweden, they often painted them red.

Later in the 18th century, Kurbits painting was developed. Kurbits (meaning pumpkin or gourd) was a kind of painting that the Swedes used to decorate cabinets, walls or clocks. It consisted mainly of a garland of fruit, flowers or leaves that was painted on the wall or cabinet as a decoration. It received its name from the vine that the Bible states protected Jonah from the hot desert sun outside of Nineveh. In the 19th century, Kurbits designs were used to decorate the Dala horses.

Few Dala horses from the 18th and 19th centuries remain today. The ones that do are in museums or private collections. Today, Dala horses range in size from the smallest ever produced –  0.013 of an inch – to giant tourist-attraction versions, such as a horse in Mora, Minn., that stands more than 20 feet high.

The largest manufacturer of Dala horses is Grannas Anders Olsson (1896-1944). In 1922, Olsson started making Dala horses on the family farm. They were a very poor Swedish family of nine children, and Olsson was looking for a way to make extra income for the family.

The procedure for making a Dala horse goes something like this: A block of wood is sawed off from a plank and then carved into a horse. The wood is allowed to dry for at least three weeks. The drying process keeps the horse from splitting.

Then, the horse is painted with at least two coats of paint. Following that, a Kurbits design is added, and the whole horse is lacquered in varnish.

Learning Kurbits painting takes many years. Once a painter is able to do it well, he is allowed to make his own design. That way, each Dala horse is unique.

The smallest horses, those smaller than 2 inches, are made from alder wood. Those that are larger are made of pine. For extremely large horses, several layers of pine are glued together.

Today, Dala horses aren’t the only kind made – there are also roosters, pigs and other farm animals made in the same style. Red is no longer an exclusive color, either. Horses are being made in blue, gold, black, white and a natural wood color.

For many Swedes, the Dala horse is an heirloom treasured from generation to generation, and there often is a lively discussion about who will inherit what horse.