The Dala Horse (Dalahäst)
- from time-killer to souvenir industry
The Dala Horse has been around for many centuries, and was first created by Swedish woodcutters in the county of Dalarna (Dalecarlia). During cold, dark winter nights, these lonely men gathered around the stove in their simple wood cabins and passed their time by carving toys for their children. All kind of creatures where carved, but the horse was the most common. The horse was a workmate helping the men haul the timber out of the forests.
The first known reference to a wooden Dala Horse for sale is from the early 1600’s. Some 100 years later this piece of carved wood, became popular and well known outside the county.
In the winter of 1716, while King Charles XII of Sweden waged war throughout most of Europe, many soldiers were quartered in private homes in Dalarna. Because of the severe winter and the war, all suffered from lack of food and warmth. Tradition has it that one soldier, in his spare time; carved Dala Horses from some scrap wood in the home where he stayed. Before presenting it to the child of the family as a gift, he painted it bright red. This was a readily available paint in the area, being a residual product from the copper mine of Falun. And finally he decorated it with kurbit painting for the harness and saddle. He had seen the decorative kurbits motifs in the church.
In return for this gift, the woman of the house gave the soldier a bowl of soup. He made another horse and received another bowl of soup. When word of his success in bartering for food reached the other soldiers, they too began carving and painting horses in exchange for food. Thus the Dala Horse is credited in part with the army's surviving the cruel winter.
Although the Dala Horse is a natural outgrowth of the clock and furniture making industry of Dalarna, it has evolved into a symbol of all Swedish handicrafts, and probably the most spread Swedish souvenir. A genuine Dala Horse at the height of two meters met the visitor’s outside the Swedish pavilion of the World Expo 2010 in Shanghai, China.
There is quite a bit of work required in the production of these decorative souvenirs. The pine wood is dried for three to four weeks after the initial carving preventing the horses from splitting after they are painted. The design is first drawn on the wood and sawed by machine. Then they are given to the carvers, who finish them using their own individual techniques. Each carver will normally choose horses of the size that is most comfortable to him to decorate, which means that the horses are available in many varying sizes. No two horses are ever truly identical.
Despite the huge production of today, the Dala Horse is still a genuine handicraft product, carved and painted by hand. And it can be purchased from the workshop if you ever visit Dalarna. For those of you that don’t have that opportunity, it can be ordered and delivered the way we are used to in the