The painted Dala horse is a Swedish icon. During a visit to the Dalarna province, we learned about its history and how it is made today.
Chances are when you see a gaily painted red wooden horse, you know that it’s from Sweden. During a recent visit to the Dalarna province of central Sweden, we looked forward to learning more about the Dala horse, and seeing how it was made.
The Dala horse can be found throughout our home state of Minnesota
We’re from Minnesota, where numerous Swedes settled and the culture lives on. The Dala horse, a symbol synonymous with Sweden, is everywhere. Mora, after the Dalarna town of the same name, has a giant-sized Dala horse statue. The Swedish immigrant heritage Gammelgården Open Air Museum in Scandia displays antique Dala horses, and the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis does, too. Dala horses are for sale in Scandinavian gift shops throughout the state.
The Dala horse has a rich historical tradition
The Dala horse tradition may go back as far as the 15th century. Foresters in central Swedish villages would carve toy horses for their children during long winter evenings by the fire. Carpenters and woodworkers have long used the slow-growth pine from forests around Lake Siljan in Dalarna. Perhaps furniture and clock producing village whittlers here produced the horses from leftover wood scraps.By the 19th century, the Dala horse was adorned with ornamental kurbits designs taken from decorative painting on cupboards and boxes popular at that time. Base coats were either white or Falun red (made from the iron and copper mining industry nearby). This artistry increased the Dala horse’s value. In periods of economic hardship when money was scarce, locals used the horses as barter for goods and services.
In 1928, young teenage brothers Nils and Jannes Olsson used a hand-pulled band saw to begin higher volume production from their mother’s baking shed in the village of Nusnäs. The Nusnäs version of the Dala horse evolved with thick legs and neck. This shape was more easily derived from mass cut blanks, as opposed to more graceful versions produced in Rättvik and elsewhere.
The Dala horse became a Swedish icon in the 20th century
The 13 and 15-year-old Olsson brothers had great timing. After being featured in the Paris World’s Expo in 1937 and the New York World’s Fair in 1939, the Dala horse became Sweden’s most recognized emblem. Global demand began to grow, and sales increased sharply after World War II. Today, about 250,000 horses are produced out of two factories in Nusnäs.
Nowadays, the traditional Dala horse is still produced primarily by hand. In winter, 50 to 60 freelance carvers work to shape the Dala horses from home using machine cut blanks for the Olsson facility.
The factory’s experienced painters customize traditional motifs and mix their own paint combinations.
These ladies work deftly, producing about 100 horses per day. It is not as easy as it may seem! Check out the video of our visit where Betsy got to try for herself! (Click here for YouTube version).
Tips and Practicalities:
The Nils Olsson factory is located in the little village of Nusnäs, off Highway 70 on the northeast shore of Lake Siljan between Mora and Rättvik in the province of Dalarna, Sweden. Tel. 0250-372-00. The factory is open from 8am to 3:30pm Monday through Friday, the store is open weekdays 9am to 4pm, weekends from 10am – 3pm. You may paint your own horse on weekends from 10am – 3pm.
Train travelers can travel and book with SJ Railways from Stockholm. Take the SJ InterCity Train 42 to Mora, which departs at 9:45am on weekdays. Change at the Mora station to the Dalatrafik Bus 324 for a 15 minute ride to Nusnäs. As of this writing, combination 2nd class fares began at 319SEK (just over $37USD).