Why is there a horse on the cover of this month’s Culture Guide? The answer is the Dala horse, a characteristically Swedish handicraft. Known for preserving and celebrating their heritage, the Swedish love for tradition extends far beyond the kitchen. The Dala horse is one of the most prominent examples.
The Paris Exposition of 1937 was an unlikely place for the Dala horse to gain global fame. Like other world fairs that preceded it, the Paris Exposition celebrated advancements in science and technology. Visitors saw art inspired by innovation—like Raoul Dufy’s La Fée Electricité (“The Electricity Fairy”), a grandiose retelling of the history of electricity—or, more somberly, Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, displayed in the fair’s Spanish pavilion, which gave voice to the political crises of the time.
In some ways, though, the Swedish took a more classic approach. The Swedish pavilion included cutting edge design, but it also included traditional crafts, some of which dated as far back as the 17th century. One of these was a painted wooden toy: the Dala horse. Within this international platform, the Dala horse (or Dalahäst, in Swedish) would become synonymous with Sweden.
And, given the Dala horse’s longstanding role in Swedish history, it’s not really surprising that it has captured the world’s imagination. The toy dates back to the early 1600s, to the lumber-rich province of Dalarna in central Sweden. There are two main origin stories for the Dala horse. The first credits its invention to local woodcutters, who carved toys for their children on long winter nights. Though they carved various animals, the horse was especially popular since it played such an important role in the lumber industry. The horse was also considered holy by the Vikings, and that reverence seems to have stuck in the Swedish psyche.
The second origin story for the Dala horse places its creation in 1716. That winter, soldiers were quartered with local families in Dalarna. Legend has it that one soldier happened to carve a horse and paint it with red paint, which was readily available in the copper-mining region. He gave it to the family he was staying with, and they gave him a hot bowl of soup in return. Carving Dala horses then caught on as a way for soldiers to secure their survival during the harsh winter. In this story, that particular soldier is also given credit for the kurbits design of the Dala horse’s saddle and harness. He had seen the kurbits pattern—which depicts the gourd vine that God caused to grow over Jonah in the Old Testament, to protect him from the hot desert sun—in a local church.
Today, visitors to Sweden can still find handmade Dala horses, and no two horses are ever exactly the same. The Dala horse, in spite of, or perhaps because of, its humble beginnings, has remained an enduring symbol of hospitality, protection, and Swedish heritage.