ca. 1955. Nordiska Kompaniet, Stockholm. Wood. 5¼ × 4¾ × 1½ in. (13.3 × 12 × 3.8 cm). Private collection.

From the Exhibition:

Swedish Wooden Toys

The bright red wooden Dala horse with the painted saddle and reins is an emblem of modern Sweden, but it evokes a much longer heritage of handicraft and tradition. In rural areas, small horses carved from bits of wood became one of the most ubiquitous homemade toys before the onset of industrialization.

The horses carved and painted in the style typical of the Dalarna region, in central Sweden, attracted attention in the mid-nineteenth century as middle-class city dwellers looked to rural culture as an antidote to urbanization. The Dalarna area also appealed to artists such as Carl and Karin Larsson who moved there and recorded the habits and pleasures of rural life. In the frontispiece to his book Spadarfvet: Mitt lilla landtbruk (The Heritage of the Spade: My Little Farm) 1906, Larsson depicts his children, dressed in regional clothing, playing farm with two red Dala horses and pigs assembled from pinecones and matchsticks.

As a Dalarna tourist industry developed, it fixed on regional traditions, folklore, and handicrafts, and the painted wooden horse became one of the most popular souvenirs. Although other animals—pigs and cows—and a wider variety of color schemes existed, the orange-red horse became increasingly standardized and was carved and painted serially by a few families who divided the labor and dominated the trade serving tourism. By the early twentieth century, the Dala horse was a recognized symbol and was adopted by the Swedish government to represent the country at the international exposition held in Paris in 1937 and again at the New York World’s Fair of 1939-40. This horse, machine-made and hand-painted, was purchased as a souvenir in the 1950s by an American from Los Angeles at the Stockholm department store Nordiska Kompaniet.