1940s. Uncas. Wood, iron. Nordiska museet, 311400.

From the Exhibition:

Swedish Wooden Toys

Swedish Wooden Toys represents the first in-depth study of the history of wooden playthings in Sweden from the seventeenth to the twenty-first century. This exhibition is curated by Susan Weber, Bard Graduate Center founder and director, and Amy F. Ogata, professor of art history at the University of Southern California and former professor at Bard Graduate Center.

This wood and iron children’s kicksled from the Nordiska museum in Stockholm is typical of this type of sports equipment popular in Sweden. The wood came from Sweden’s dense forests of birch, ash, and pine, and the iron runners, which are common to kicksleds from the first half of the twentieth century, were added for extra maneuverability and speed. Like other types of sleds, kicksleds were made in a range of sizes, materials, and price points.

The kicksled allowed children to travel quickly over long distances to school, which made them useful in the second half of the nineteenth century as educational mandates and reforms were implemented in Sweden. They were primarily popular, however, for sport or amusement rather than transportation. In 1889 Viktor Balck, a Swedish military officer and athlete, led a campaign to encourage children’s outdoor activities. He advocated kicksleds as part of “a genuine Swedish winter sport,” which deserved a larger reception wherever snow conditions in Sweden allowed. He led a kicksled club in Stockholm and considered kicksledding an athletic pursuit appropriate to the Olympic Games.

The earliest kicksleds date to the 1850s and were first made the north or Norrland area of Sweden. The runners extend toward the back for stability, and two vertical supports hold a handlebar. The name derives from the technique required to propel the sled: standing upright on the runners, the rider would push or “kick” with one leg and place both feet on the runners as the sled moved forward. Many kicksleds like this example had beautifully turned handlebars and a wood-slatted chairlike seat in front for a passenger or for carrying extra gear. Early kicksleds with wooden runners were built by local carpenters or blacksmiths.

Unfortunately, the early kicksleds had no steering mechanism, a major drawback and certainly a safety concern. Inventors and manufacturers worked constantly to improve maneuverability; indeed, improving kicksleds became a national obsession, and many patents were registered. The patent office recorded nearly 150 registered inventions for kicksled improvements, from foldable models to antitheft devices. The widespread appeal of kicksledding led to specialized accessories, which were sold separately and included lamps with nickel-covered headlights, lantern holders, bells, bell holders, and covers.

By the turn of the twentieth century, kicksleds could be purchased in the new bicycle stores as well as department stores, specialty sports shops, and toy stores. Mail-order firms offered a reasonable, often more affordable alternative to shopping in stores, particularly in rural farming communities and small towns.

Kicksleds continued to gain in popularity, evidenced by the number of manufacturers and retailers that proliferated in Sweden from the 1890s through the 1930s. Kicksled production peaked during and right after World War II, probably because of added demand during the war years, when imports were cut off and both cars and gasoline were in short supply. Although most manufacturers were located in the north, primarily in the Norrland area, the largest kicksled producer during this period was J. Malmqvist & Sons in Vaxjo, a town in southern Sweden, near the toy-making regions in Smaland.

Kicksleds never completely severed their association with transport, and when cars became more affordable to a wider Swedish market in the 1950s, kicksled production diminished, and many manufacturers were out of business by the 1960s. Kicksleds are still being made in Sweden, however, and continue to be popular with children and adults.