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The story of the Dala horse: A Swedish symbol

Red-painted wooden horses have become a global symbol of Sweden. But have you ever stopped to wonder why? Read the history of the Dala horse and its rise to fame.

The story of the Dala horse: A Swedish symbol

If you do a Google search for “symbol of Sweden”, you'll see a bunch of gold crowns on a blue background, a few flags, maybe some peace signs… and plenty of red wooden horses.

The Dala horse (Dalahäst) is undeniably an international symbol for the country – but it hasn't always been that way.

“The Dala horse first became famous at the World Fair in New York in 1939,” Lennart Ihren, Head of production at Nils Olsson Hemslöjd  told The Local.

The red-painted wooden horses, a traditional toy from the Dalarna region in Sweden, first made its international debut in Paris in 1936, where they received enough attention that the Swedish committee at the fair decided to take them to New York.

“All these small producers in the region got together and created some 15,000 horses and roosters, and a 2.5 metre high horse which stood at the entrance of the fair,” Ihren explained. “It was the highlight of the event and got its picture in papers all around the world.”

Today the legacy of the Dala horse continues – and it's in no small way due to the company Nils Olsson Hemslöjd.

The company was started in 1928 by two Swedish brothers, Nils and Jannes Olsson, who were 13 and 15 at the time. They started the company in their little shed – the 1920s version of a classic Swedish start-up.

The Henry Fords of Dala horse carving, the brothers created a method of speedily hand-producing the traditional carvings.

They just made production simpler,” Ihren said.

They used a hand-pulled wooden bandsaw. One pulled the saw and the other sawed the horses out. That's how they started more commercial production.”

Nearly 90 years later, Hemslöjd still makes the horses the same way.

The saws are electric,” Ihren admitted, “But otherwise it's the same.”

Workers at Hemslöjd select unneeded wood left over from building, drive it through the planer, use a rubber stamp to mark the pattern, and saw the basic shape out by hand – with help from the electric saws of course.

Leftovers are then turned into woodchips to heat up neighbouring houses. So nothing is wasted. Except for the workers on a Friday night, perhaps,” Ihren joked.

In other words, the entire operation is thoroughly and entirely Swedish.

From there the future horses are sent out as “homework” across the Dalarna region. Workers carve out the horse shape in their homes and then return them to the factory for a quality check and a basic coat of paint. Then they are handed over for decorating.


Horses being hand-painted at Nils Olsson Hemslöjd.

Hemslöjd has two to three decoration painters working full-time, and also has a handful of painters working from home. All of the painting is done by hand.

“We've always said to tourists that if they can find two identical horses, they can have them for free,” Ihren said. “And it hasn't happened yet.”

The original Dala horses, dating back to the 1700s, were painted bright orange-red – the colour available from the local copper mine in Falun. Today Dala horses are available in a range of colours, although traditional red is still the most popular.

Other traditions have become outdated, however: The Olsson boys used to run out into the forest to catch squirrels in order to use their tails for paintbrushes. Nowadays the company simply buys brushes, Ihren informed The Local with a laugh.

Even with such a small team, Nils Olsson Hemslöjd produces about 500 finished horses every day – which then travel the world.

“I have travelled all across the globe carving horses and showing the craft,” Ihren said.

“It's obviously a symbol for the whole of Sweden when you go abroad, and most Swedes think of it that way too. There's not much that is genuinely Swedish anymore… and I think we need to cling on to this horse.”

For Ihren, the Dala horse is personal as well.

“My grandfather used to sit in our home when I was a small boy, carving horses. So I have had the Dala horse around me all my life.”

And the Dala horse isn't going anywhere, Ihren said. Sales are steadily on the rise, and the carvings are becoming popular as company gifts as well.

“Many companies want a special horse with a logo or certain colour. It's a nice gift for customers abroad,” Ihren explained.

The World Cross-Country Skiing Championship in Falun, Dalarna, this winter will also feature its own horse – both specially-designed mini versions and a larger horse signed by all of the winners.

And of course, the large Dala horse will also be made by hand – the old-fashioned way.

“We are proud to make them the same way they have always been made,” Ihren said. “It feels like we are taking care of our cultural heritage.”

 

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The unmanned supermarkets rescuing Sweden’s rural areas

One after another, grocery stores are shutting down in rural Sweden, leaving villagers to travel miles to buy food. But a new type of shop has sprung up in their wake: unmanned supermarkets in mobile containers.

The unmanned supermarkets rescuing Sweden's rural areas
Store manager Domenica Gerlach enters the Lifvs unmanned supermarket store in Veckholm, 80km outside Stockholm. Photo: Jonathan Nackstrand /AFP

In Veckholm, a village of a few hundred people 80 kilometres (50 miles) from Stockholm, the last grocery store closed more than a decade ago. Then, a year-and-a-half ago, even the little convenience store at the only petrol station locked its doors.

Villagers were left with no choice but to travel a half-hour by car to the closest supermarket.

But in July 2020, an automated, unmanned grocery store came to town. In a container dropped in the middle of a field, open 24 hours a day, the 20-square-metre (215-square-foot) supermarket sells hundreds of items — and there’s no cashier in sight.

“Since a while back, there has been nothing in this area and I think most of us living here have really missed that,” said Giulia Ray, a beekeeper in
Veckholm. 

“It’s so convenient to have this in the area,” she told AFP, doing her own shopping and restocking the shop’s shelves with her honey at the same time.

Shoppers unlock the supermarket’s door with an app on their smartphone. “We come here three times a week and buy stuff we need,” Lucas Edman, a technician working in the region for a few weeks, told AFP. “It’s a little bit more expensive but it’s fine. It’s a price I can pay to not go to another store.”

He scanned his pizzas and soda on the app on his phone, which is linked to his bank account and a national identification system — an added anti-theft security, according to the store. And it’s all done under the watchful eye of a single security camera.

Keeping costs down

In Sweden, the number of grocery stores — everything from superstores to small convenience stores — has dropped from 7,169 in 1996 to 5,180 in 2020, according to official statistics.

While the number of superstores has almost tripled in 24 years, many rural shops have closed down, often due, like elsewhere in Europe, to a lack of
profitability.

Daniel Lundh, who co-founded the Lifvs, has opened almost 30 unmanned stores in rural Sweden and in urban areas with no shops in the past two years.

“To be able to keep low prices for the customer, we have to be able to control our operation costs. So that means controlling the rent — that’s why
the stores are quite small — but also controlling the staffing cost,” Lundh said.

He plans to open his first unstaffed supermarkets outside Sweden early next year.

Domenica Gerlach, who manages the Veckholm store, only comes by once a week to receive deliveries. She also manages three other shops, all of them mobile containers.

Peter Book, the mayor of Enkoping, the municipality to which Veckholm belongs, has only good things to say about the three container stores that
have opened in his patch. And he’d like to see more.

“It makes it easier to take a step to move there if you know you have this facility,” he said.

Meeting place and ‘salvation’

In Sweden, one of the most digitalised countries in the world, Lifvs, like its Swedish rivals AutoMat and 24Food which have also popped up in rural
areas, benefits from a very wired population.

In 2019, 92 percent of Swedes had a smartphone. Ironically, the unmanned shops — plopped down in the middle of nowhere — also play a role as a “meeting place” for locals.

“You come here, you get some gas and you go inside and get something, and maybe someone else is here and you can have a chat,” Ray said.
Mayor Book echoed the notion, saying the stores make it possible to connect society”.

The pandemic has also proven the stores’ usefulness, since no contact with other people inside the shop is necessary.

Because of Covid-19, only one person at a time is allowed inside the Veckholm store.

“My mother lives nearby as well and … this has been a shop she could actually enter during all this time. She hasn’t been (able to go) anywhere,”
Ray said of her 75-year-old mother. “This has been a salvation for her.”

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