BY KATE WEXELL
There is a story dating all the way back to 1716 about a winter riddled with war. King Charles XII of Sweden was battling the Tsardom of Russia, Denmark-Norway, and Saxony-Poland-Lithuania in the Great Northern War. Although this war resulted in the end of the Swedish Empire and the Swedish Age of Liberty, a powerful remnant is said to remain. During this war, it is said that while a Swedish soldier was quartered in a civilian home. He carved a wooden horse, and gave it to the child that lived in the home. In exchange, their mother gave the soldier a bowl of soup. More and more soldiers began carving horses, and it is said that this bartering system allowed the soldiers to survive the harsh winter.
Although the credibility of this story is questioned, for centuries people have used scraps from wood-carving shops and paint pigment from coal mines to create what is known as the Dalecarlian horse, or dala horse. Now, they are made in the Swedish region of Dalarna, a region of central Sweden that is known for being a picture-perfect Swedish stereotype. It is a popular location for vacations due to its forests and fishing lakes, and sports the traditional red-painted houses, along with having beautiful valleys.
Since they were displayed in the Paris Exposition in the mid-1800s, dala horses have gained popularity as an artisan craft and are now one of the most recognizable features of Sweden. It is still common for men in Swedish towns to carve the horses within their own homes and bring them to dala horse workshops to be hand-painted. Since the 1800s, kurbits have been painted on the dala horses. Kurbits is a style of Scandinavian art that was originally used on tapestries that contains light brush strokes, typically of gourds and flowers. Each dala horse is first painted in a strong, solid color: usually red, blue, black, or white. Then, they are adorned with the kurbit art, which looks vaguely like a mane, saddle, reins, and tail on the horses. Because they are painted by hand, each dala horse is unique.
Kurbits were common in Scandinavia, particularly in the Dalarna region, in the 1700s and 1800s. The name itself refers to a gourd that is referenced in the Bible. It is also an art style that is used in decorating furniture and tapestries, utilizing light and simple brush strokes that imitate the vines of plants. Kurbits usually have many patterns and symmetry.
Beginning in the town of Lindsborg, people began to use dala horses as signs with their family name engraved on it. This tradition carried over during immigration to the United States, and now many families in the Midwest, particularly in Swedish areas, have a dala horse hanging from their door with their surname on it. Another interesting tidbit is that the world’s largest dala horse is located in Avesta, Sweden. It is built from concrete and stands over thirteen meters tall. Although it has been centuries since legends were told about wooden horses, Dalecarlian horses still remain an important tradition to represent Scandinavian culture and heritage today.