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A Quest for Norwegian Folk Art in America
    by Tora Bøhn (Volume 19: Page 116)

In 1949-50 I made a tour of the United States in search of valuable Norwegian antiques. The purpose of the trip was not to purchase, but to make an inventory. The year’s sojourn also had other goals of interest to a European museum curator, but since cataloguing was the main objective, that determined the course of study. The plan was to include a systematic examination of museum displays and archives, besides visits to private homes which might be expected to have Norwegian antiques, either inherited or purchased. {1}

It was my hope that the trip might provide supplementary information for research in Norwegian art history, and this hope was realized. I think that my investigations may also have served the interests of American museums, since many of the Norwegian antiques that they contained had been unidentified. This situation is understandable enough when one considers the lack of technical literature on Norwegian hand crafts.

What really drew me, as an art historian, to the task was the realization that many objects must have been brought across the ocean by tourists and immigrants, and sent over when family estates were divided among heirs. It seemed probable that among these were valuable Norwegian antiques. In recent decades Norwegian and American historians, sociologists, and men of letters have clarified many of the [117] main points in the history of Norwegian immigration to America, but the material goods that the immigrants brought along have on the whole been a lost chapter. Little has been written on this subject, and many long and expensive trips would be required to ferret out all the material. Unfortunately it is even now almost too late to get a complete picture, since so many objects have changed owners or disappeared for other reasons. This is notably true of those things with relatively little sentimental or intrinsic value.

Nevertheless, making an inventory of what has been saved, whether it be of the spiritual or of the material culture of a transplanted Norway, can clarify many aspects of the history of Norwegian immigration. And since it can be assumed that more Norwegians will want to visit the same areas for research in some type of study, it may be of value to recount some general experiences and list some of the most important sources for such a study tour.


Of course the most practical source of information in planning such a tour is the usual contact with Norwegians in America: Nordmanns-forbundet’s office in Oslo, which has a complete list of editors of Norwegian-American newspapers, of consulates, and of the most important institutions of learning, with emphasis on those which have departments of Scandinavian. Among the latter, probably the most useful for Norwegian-American studies are the universities of Wisconsin (Madison), Minnesota (Minneapolis), North Dakota (Grand Forks), and Washington (Seattle). The Norwegian Lutheran colleges are likewise of great importance in orientation and study. The Norwegian tradition is particularly strong in the oldest of them: Luther College in Decorah, Iowa; and St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota.

Library visits at these universities and colleges are very productive, since one finds here the greatest concentration of Norwegian-American literature outside of the main libraries [118] in Norway. Excellent collections of Norwegian-American literature are found in other great American libraries as well, particularly on the east coast; for instance, the Library of Congress and the library of the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. The largest public libraries, such as the New York Public Library, and the large museum libraries can supply the important reference books on Norwegian or Scandinavian art history. Another valuable center of information is the American-Scandinavian Foundation, which has offices in New York and Chicago and publishes the American-Scandinavian Review. The Scandinavian national groups have their separate historical societies; North field, Minnesota, has for many years been the seat of the Norwegian-American Historical Association, which has concentrated mainly on publication.

In the Midwest there are many small historical museums which are important to any study of the local immigrant culture. For many years the largest and most interesting for our subject has been the Norwegian-American Historical Museum in Decorah, Iowa, administered by Luther College. Besides the main building in the center of the little town, there is a group of log cabins clustered on the school’s idyllic campus, which belong to the museum.

The main museum, which unfortunately is an impractical old firetrap, is filled with a rich collection of pioneer relics, some brought from Norway, some made in America. The exhibit is dominated by a large collection of chests and other wooden containers; but tools, textiles, and silver are also well represented, as well as more or less valuable small objects. Most of the collections have been assembled from individual gifts, but large bequests from private collectors, such as the P. Pedersen Collection from Eau Claire, also play a prominent part. If this museum could receive financial support, it would undoubtedly be a natural center for preservation of the material aspect of Norwegian immigrant culture.

St. Olaf College also has its museum collection, consisting [119] mainly of Norwegian farm articles, but limited in quantity and at present stored in an archive room. Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, has a very small catalogued collection of pioneer relics. There is also a Norwegian Lutheran school less known to Norwegians, Clifton Junior College in Texas, where a small immigrant museum has been started, very modest in extent. I did not visit the latter place, but correspondence with the school made it clear that the collection consists of quite ordinary examples within the usual groups: chests, tools, and kitchen utensils of various kinds, besides some smaller silver objects. Nor does it appear that there are any important relics in private hands, even though Clifton itself has great interest as the site of a colony founded by Cleng Peerson, who is buried there.

In Green Bay, Wisconsin, there is a little private museum, Tank Cottage, which has had some connection with Norwegian immigration, since the house was originally owned by the well-to-do Tanks. Nils Otto Tank, of Trondheim, traveled to America in 1850 and died in 1864. Tank’s rich Dutch widow lived in Green Bay for many years, and after her death in 1891 her various belongings were sold at auction, mainly in Chicago, and from there scattered to the four winds. {2} In recent years the house has been restored and maintained as a point of local historical interest. It has been furnished with a newly acquired collection of American historical objects which, so far as the directors know, have no connection with the Tank family. Nevertheless, my visit to the place in 1950 brought positive returns, since some old Trønder pewterware had found refuge there and must with out a doubt be regarded as the original property of the Trønder Tank family. Some Trønder pewter pieces also found their way into the Green Bay Historical Museum without being identified earlier. Accounts of Tank’s tragic attempt to found an idealistic-communistic pioneer society with a religious basis also report that the Tanks were supposed to [120] have had whole freight cars full of valuable belongings brought over to the New World. {3}

A private Norwegian-American museum of outstanding cultural and historical character is “Little Norway,” an open-air museum at Blue Mounds near Madison, Wisconsin. Tourist attendance is said to be in the thousands in spite of the museum’s out-of-the-way location in a peaceful farming district and of the fact that it is open only a few months during the summer. The museum was created by the late Isak Dahle, who, in the untamed rural landscape with its large shade trees, realized the dream of his youth, to bring together objects illustrating Norwegian culture in Norwegian surroundings. {4}

Since himself came from a farm family, he concentrated on the characteristic environment of the Norwegian-American farmer, and one crude log house after another was acquired and added to the original farm, where it was rebuilt among the trees near the rippling brook. As the years went by, the multitude of Norwegian immigrant items grew, including such things as rosemalt chests, cupboards, boxes, carved mangling boards, stems, butter boxes, simpler utensils of wood and nonprecious metals, farm tools and old harness equipment, and so forth. There is also a collection of textiles, which consists mainly of basket-weave fabrics from Vestlandet, besides a group of small silver objects. {5}

As the collection grew, more buildings were needed, and some reproductions of log houses were built up around the grounds. Finally most of the small items were gathered in a main structure that had been Norway’s exhibit building at [121] the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. {6} It is a wooden building whose architecture seems to be a romantic mixture of Swiss chalet and Norwegian “dragon” style. It is popularly called the “stave church.”

As can be expected with such a hobby collection, this open-air museum has a somewhat romantic and unscientific character. Nevertheless, a visit to it can be very profitable to a historian of Norwegian culture. And one can well understand the popularity of the place with the American vacationer, who can there satisfy his taste for a little romantic primitive ness. No wonder that to many Americans of Norwegian de scent the sod hut has stubbornly persisted as the most characteristic of Norwegian houses.

“Little Norway” is the Midwest’s largest private collection of Norwegian-American immigrant items. But there are others in Wisconsin, more modest and therefore little known. They are, nevertheless, worth mentioning because they some what resemble the district or farm museum with a living family tradition. The area directly southeast of Madison, especially that around Stoughton and McFarland, was partially settled by Sognings, and near McFarland a third-generation Sogning, Albert Skare, has created a modest little farm museum of the family’s small pioneer buildings. In the former dwelling house with its large fireplace, the floor and walls are filled with old, unpretentious utensils in wood, iron, copper, and similar materials, most of which have always be longed to the Skare family and were brought from Norway in the nineteenth century. A spirit of nostalgia hangs over these little mementos of a simple pioneer existence on a farm that still seems lonely and isolated, though it is within easy driving distance of Madison. It is appropriately named “The Hidden Farm.”

Of similarly unpretentious character is the Torsgaard collection of farm equipment, located in western Wisconsin out side the little Norwegian town of Westby. Unfortunately I [122] got no farther than the yard, because the small museum building was being rearranged by ‘the meticulous woman caretaker. But the Norwegian-American sociologist, P. A. Munch, who has seen the collection, accords it a certain interest for its many immigrant items. As with the two hobby museums mentioned earlier, this has an isolated location away from the highway. This isolation has had some value; it has created an unusual degree of self-sufficiency which has nourished the feeling for family tradition on these farms.

A similar farm museum is the Heg memorial near Milwaukee, where the Heg family’s old log cabins are almost completely furnished. But since they lie in Heg Memorial Park, an ordinary recreation area popular for Sunday outings, the place no longer has the charm of living tradition.

For those who have time for only a superficial contact with the primitive Norwegian immigrant culture of the past century, the farm museums that have been mentioned give a typical picture. And one who can include in his tour the first Norwegian church, built in Muskego, Wisconsin, in 1843 and now located at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, will have an all-round picture of the simple building methods used by these immigrants who had reached a more or less settled state in the primitive pioneer existence.

As can be expected, the houses are marked by simplicity of construction, plan, and dimensions. One has a stronger impression of this after visiting a large number of the pre served log cabins; for example, the school and parsonage buildings on the Luther College campus in Decorah, Iowa; the first courthouse in Glenwood, Minnesota; the first school house (1869) in Cass County, near Hillsboro, North Dakota; or the usual log dwellings in other places. Examples of the last are a log cabin situated in the middle of Spring Grove, Minnesota and the still used but enlarged log cabin on the Jerman farm at Viroqua, Wisconsin.

Those who wish to do a systematic study of the material side of the immigrant culture may profit by exploring the many small local historical museums that come under more [123] or less public administration and are usually located in county courthouses. Apparently it is not well known among students of Norwegian culture in the United States that an excellent printed handbook is available with a list of such museums: Historical Societies in the United States and Canada. {7} The public support that such museums enjoy does not mean, however, that the collections are especially large or valuable. Some are well organized; about as many others are insignificant and poorly preserved. If I were to recommend a visit to any local historical museums on the basis of their Norwegian material it would be to the following: the State Historical Society of Wisconsin Museum (Madison), chests and peasant silver, mainly brooches; Tank Cottage (Green Bay, Wisconsin), a little pewter from the Tank family; the Minnesota Historical Society Museum (St. Paul) , a few farm items, and unpublished source material; the Pope County Museum (Glenwood, Minnesota), some ordinary farm objects, and unpublished source material; the Ottertail County Museum (Fergus Falls, Minnesota), some primitive pioneer relics, and unpublished source material. My own experience has been that it is a waste of time to visit the other local museums, even though they have a few very ordinary Norwegian pioneer relics. A museum chart in the Minnesota Historical Society Museum gives a fine preliminary orientation on the quality and contents of such museum collections in Minnesota. {8}

Neither the Chicago, the Boston, nor the New York Historical Museum offers any material of interest for the study of the Norwegian-American milieu, a rather surprising fact so far as Chicago, with its large Norwegian population, is concerned. But this situation is yet more strongly under scored by the lack of Norwegian antiques in the Chicago art collections.

It will occur to others, as it did to me, that antique shops [124] ought to yield definite returns in a search for Norwegian articles. In New York’s international environment this was true in the case of silver objects, even though the brevity of my stay made the results of the census understandably meager. Systematic checking over a period of years could certainly have afforded some valuable information.

A former buyer and antique dealer of Baraboo, Wisconsin, specialized in Scandinavian goods, and it is reliably reported that hundreds of Norwegian items went through his hands before he died. No doubt many of these ended up outside Wisconsin, probably with antique dealers in the larger cities. Hundreds of rosemalt Norwegian chests are supposed to have gone that way. My experiences on innumerable visits to local museums and in hundreds of Norwegian-American farm and city homes, supplemented by stories of pioneer times told by immigrants and their children, make the tale of this Baraboo buyer’s activities very credible.

At this time, Norwegian immigrant objects with any artistic or cultural interest have to a large extent gone astray or been destroyed. Examples of this will be given later. Ac cording to reports, the World War II period taught owners to hang on to what little was left, partly because of Norwegian propaganda, which gave it sentimental value, and partly because of the higher prices on antiques. This situation was clearly reflected in a Minneapolis clearing house for antiques from various parts of Minnesota, which I was invited to visit. It was suggested that because of Minnesota’s large Scandinavian population one might expect to find things of Scandinavian origin there. The visit was a disappointment from my point of view, as I saw only a few Swedish articles and practically nothing Norwegian, aside from a couple of badly restored painted chests. The objects were mostly of American and English glass, stoneware, and base metals from the last half of the nineteenth century, a characteristic of all the small antique businesses in the northern states. Quick samplings of the many shops of this sort in such Scandinavian [125] centers as Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Chicago always gave the same poor results.

It is tempting here to bring in a sociopsychological factor that applies to most immigrant groups, including the Norwegians. Area studies that in the past years have been made in the Norwegian farm districts and small towns in the Midwest have clearly shown that the relationship of those of Norwegian descent to the “old country” has changed from generation to generation. Things that the immigrants themselves had viewed with a certain nostalgic affection were rejected by the next generation, partly because of the incentive to Americanize and partly to escape the stigma of menial labor associated with the work-worn pioneer figure.

But after a period of reaction and of progress away from the primitive living conditions of the pioneer times, log cab ins and memories of the homeland took on the romantic glow that they still retain. In the population centers this romantic tendency has crystallized into Norwegian-American societies, choruses, and dance groups, and into a renewed interest in painted chests and carved items. It has been strengthened by later arrivals who in their homesickness have been seized by the same spirit.


The eastern areas of Norwegian settlement in the Midwest (Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota) are the best fields for finding privately owned mementos. The farther northwest one goes into Minnesota and toward North Dakota, the poorer be comes the result, in spite of a still strongly Norwegian population. This is true whether one builds on verbal accounts from the oldest inhabitants, or searches for existing pioneer goods. The settlement of the last-mentioned places began in the time of the steamships, and as the immigrants traveled westward from the port cities, they passed through long settled regions, well supplied with material goods. They could thus spare themselves much of the inconvenience and expense [126] of quantities of baggage; the goods brought from Norway were confined mainly to clothes and certain individual objects of sentimental value.

As was indicated in the above list of local historical museums, a certain amount of unpublished source material about Norwegian immigrants is to be found in them. This includes rather recent interviews with old people in the area, made by interested persons within the local historical society to record some information about the earliest immigrant times. Unfortunately the interviewers have not been concerned with the material culture of the immigrants. There fore I went out on my own and conversed with immigrant families who still preserve a living tradition of primitive farm life. Here are some of the results.

Grandfather’s name was Tosten Andersen Aabye, and Grand mother’s was Oline Bergan. They were members of a group of thirty pioneers who were the first to settle in the portion of Goodhue County known as the Holden Community. . . . No white man had settled in this region before they came there in 1854. . . . Here my mother was born almost 87 years ago. . . She is the only direct descendant of these pioneers that is living today. . .

My mother’s family came from Sigdal in 1852. When they left Norway they traveled from their parental home to Drammen by horse and a little cart, and from there they took a small boat to Christiania where they boarded the ship that was to take them to America. They came to Quebec and from there they traveled on the Great Lakes by boat and after that by railroad. This was very uncomfortable traveling, especially on the train -Grandmother often said that the train was like a cattle car with benches along the sides for the passengers. They brought their food with them in chests or boxes of some kind which must have been disposed of. They took with them milk in wooden barrels or kags as Mother calls them. They also had spekekjød, lefse, ost, flat brød. The boat, as far as we have been able to find out, did not furnish any of the food for the journey, unless it could be the water for the passengers. .

My grandparents stopped . . . in or near the city of Dodgeville, Wisconsin. Here they spent two years. My grandparents were married in this settlement. They were distantly related but did not know each other very well until they met on board ship on the journey from Norway to America. All the family [127] keepsakes were taken with them into their new home in Goodhue County.

Both grandparents had beautiful chests - with rose painting or rosemaling on them. One bears the date 1800. There are three initials also, “K O D” - I suppose this means that it belonged to Kari Olsdatter. The other chest was dated 1798 and had the initials “M O D.” The locks are of heavy iron, and they were carried by means of very heavy iron handles on the two ends. The covers or lids are curved and very heavy. When my grand parents came to America they landed in Quebec, as stated previously, and traveled via boat and railroad to Wisconsin. During this journey by boat these chests were supposed to have been brought with them, but there were so many people that sought transportation that the boat could not carry extra luggage such as these chests, so they were sent out on land along the route along the Great Lakes. It seems incredible to me that these chests were ever returned to them, but after weeks of waiting they came; but the locks had been broken and many of the things which they had in them had been stolen. . . .

Mother has an old hus postil about 200 years old which they brought with them from Norway, too. The lettering is really a work of art. She also has a round box with burnt-in designs and carvings, and a beautiful skaut in pure silk. {9}

This account undoubtedly gives quite a typical picture of the food and goods carried on the emigrant journey by an average family and tells of some of the difficulties of traveling with baggage.

Hanna Troen, a very old but sprightly and alert woman from Starbuck, Minnesota, told me that she and her parents, after living in poverty in Inn-Trøndelag, came to America in 1866, when she was nine years old. They brought with them a spinning wheel, various small necessities, and a fine, large mirror. There were also three large chests, unpainted, made especially to carry their food. It took six weeks to cross the ocean and from Quebec they took a train to Lansing, Michigan, where a kindhearted farmer took them on to Decorah, Iowa, with his horse and wagon. There they stayed for two years working on a farm. At the end of this time they decided to move “farther toward the west and north” and so [128] became part of a caravan that settled in Pope County, Minnesota. The spinning wheel was taken along, but the mirror was too cumbersome to carry; it was sold in Iowa where “everyone wanted to buy it because it was from the old country and terribly nice. We kept only the most important possessions when we left Iowa.”

This woman still retained loyalty and pride for the homeland and kept consistently to the Norwegian language, even though she understood English perfectly well. Her husband, Benjamin Troen, was also from Trøndelag; he came to America in 1871. Before he died he wrote a short autobiography for the Pope County Historical Society at Glenwood. It is presented here as a characteristic example of the early hardships of the pioneers:

My father took a homestead in Minnewaska Township, he dug a hole in the ground which made a dugout for a living house, and there he settled with his family. He had a straw shed for the oxen and cattle. Father broke up wild prairies with the oxen. During that summer we had a prairie fire and the crop was all burnt. In 1876 the grasshoppers came. They did not quite destroy all of the crop that year, but in 1877 they took everything off the fields. We did not have very much to do with. We used a scythe for cutting the hay and a cradle for cutting the grain.

Of course a great many Norwegian immigrants came across the ocean empty-handed. But by inquiring among those of Norwegian descent I was often able to find out from the oldest of a family that a comprehensive inventory of household equipment had been brought along. For example, Mrs. Anna Bakke of Madison related that her father came over with his family from Gudbrandsdalen about 1866. They were unfortunate enough to have to spend nineteen weeks on the trip, with six weeks’ stay in Ireland because of engine trouble. But the family had plenty of food and many clothes with them, packed in various chests, tubs, boxes, and kegs. Of the things they brought there are still left a goro iron, a bronze mortar, and a spinning wheel. The spinning wheel seems to [129] have been almost as common an article in the immigrant equipment as the chest. {10}

One rarely finds as many articles preserved as there are at Mrs. Aasne Smedal’s home in Madison: a rosemalt chest from 1779, round clothes boxes with burned stamped ornamentation (including one from 1769), a rose-painted butter box on three legs, ale bowls, two spinning wheels, a brass candlestick, a silver beaker with three ball feet and heavy Regency decoration, three blue glass flasks, copper kettles, a nicely decorated knife with sheath, weaver’s reeds, carding combs, woodworking tools, glasses, a knife and fork with a pair of carved lions on the handles, buttons of silver and pewter, brooches and small ring buckles of silver. In the textile category there are gloves with pretty multicolored embroidery, quantities of garters, children’s caps with white embroidered capes attached, christening caps of brocade, head kerchiefs, fancy towels, shirts, and so forth, with various kinds of embroidery. Most of these things had belonged to the Smedal family in Telemark; the carvings and embroidery are characteristic of the place of origin. The owner came to America with her family in 1874, when she was a year old.

Mr. Nicholas Gunderson, also of Madison, remembers the following Norwegian items from his childhood home: huge decorated chests for clothes and food, a spinning wheel, ale bowls, a quantity of smaller chests and boxes, brass candle sticks, sleigh bells, silver brooches and other jewelry, a heart-shaped smelling-salts case, and a large silver spoon. Among the various books that were brought along he remembers especially well Tresehow’s Predikener over høimesse-texterne, published in Copenhagen in 1787.

Anna Lommen of Dennison, Minnesota, reports that her parents were from Vang in Valdres and from Hurum. They came over about 1860, and of the goods they brought she re members three rose-painted chests and two spinning wheels, [130] besides several ale bowls that the children in the family later made into playthings by boring holes in them and using them as wheels! Two of the chests, one dated “1796 I H D,” and a wooden spoon, dated 1754, with a geometrically carved handle, are still in her possession.

Chests, small wooden articles, books, and tapestries seem to have been usual equipment with many West Norwegians. The immigrant goods inherited by Kaia Daley from her Sogning parents are characteristic. Of impressive age is a huge iron-banded chest from 1664, and besides this she has boxes, wooden and horn spoons, a small unstamped silver beaker dated 1761, a hand-worked tapestry, Johann Arndt’s Sex bøger om den sande christendom (Copenhagen, 1739), and Bibelen eller den hellige skrift (Christiania, 1868). These things are in Stoughton, Wisconsin, and came from Miss Daley’s maternal grandfather, Sjur Schelderup Aasen of Lyster.

Even though most of the emigrants traveled to America to find better living conditions, this does not exclude the fact that many of them came from comfortable homes. A typical example of a group whose large inheritance portion was brought along to the New World was the Finnesgaard family of Hallingdalen. Miss Anette Finnesgaard of Kenyon, Minnesota, who was born about 1875, tells the following: In 1851 her parents came to Wisconsin as an engaged couple and were married there. After two years there and some years’ stay in Iowa, they moved to Fillmore County, Minnesota and finally in 1864 to Kenyon, Goodhue County, where they “homesteaded” for good. When Anette was left alone in 1950, she sold the farm. When one considers that many objects are now spread among other descendants, an unbelievable amount of immigrant goods was saved when the farm was sold. Some of the things which Anette brought along to her new, modern home were: a silver cup with rocaille decoration, silver belt buckles, a silver bridal ornament with two Maltese crosses and filigree rosettes, a small brooch, a powder horn, and a walking stick mounted with silver. There are also many [131] chests (among others two very pretty ones from 1736 and 1824), three muskets, sleigh bells, cowbells, saddles, a good supply of tools, several small powder horns, ale bowls, huge copper kettles, a coffee grinder, a spinning wheel, a small loom for linen cloth, three fur rugs, blood-letting apparatus, and so on. There were reportedly quantities of other objects, including clothes and other textiles, but these are gone.

Such large and small inventories of household goods be longing to the Norwegian immigrant could be recorded in large number, but the opportunities decrease greatly from year to year, for the sale of old family possessions and the construction of new dwellings are the order of the day in even the most tradition-bound settlements. Of course such Norwegian regions are separated from each other by many counties that carry the stamp of other nationalities, but with in these small areas the Norwegian character is still surprisingly well preserved.

One can scarcely help thinking how much must have been brought over in the way of immigrant goods just in the colonization of so limited an area as Goodhue County. Of course most of the articles were purely utilitarian, but the quality and age of much that is still preserved in museums and private homes show that heirlooms of more artistic value were also brought over in great quantity. It could hardly have been expensive or difficult to have temporary wooden chests made for food and clothes for the trip to America, and examples of such are found in the Decorah museum. There are nevertheless a great number of well-made rose-painted and ironclad chests and boxes, some with the address tag still nailed on: “N.N., Nord-Amerika,” which indicates that they were used as regular travel chests. Probably nothing was more logical than to use one’s solid inherited pieces for this purpose when leaving the childhood home in Norway. In many cases, too, the farm was sold or the place completely abandoned, and the family left in a group with its possessions.

A short summary will be given here of certain interesting [132] points in the inventory of chests that I have listed, this category being chosen because the articles so frequently are dated. Of fifty-six dated chests found among regular immigrant goods in the Middle West, five are from the 1600’s (usually with clinched iron numbers), sixteen from the 1700’s, and the remainder from the first half of the nineteenth century. Chests of later date are quite rare, and of the numerous undated ones a great many seem to show a rosemaling style from the beginning of the 1800’s. Both the age and the generally good quality of ironwork and rosemaling indicate that the chests, besides being the regular trunks of the day, were also valued as showpieces and family treasures.


Besides the goods that crossed the ocean with the immigrants of the last century, various Norwegian objects of artistic and cultural value have come to America in our century. Many of them probably represented inherited articles sent on to heirs in the United States, but others were brought over by new immigrants. This applies especially to the Norwegians in Brooklyn, in North Dakota, and in the Far West-for example, in the state of Washington-as well as to recent arrivals in the older areas of colonization in the Mid west, with Minneapolis as a focal point.

Following are some examples of inherited pieces which were sent from Norway. In 1910 a man named Hauge and his sister, of Dennison, Minnesota, received the following items that they inherited from relatives in Gloppen, Nordfjord: a pewter mug stamped “Bergen 1787,” a rosemalt ale bowl dated 1858, a brass candlestick from the beginning of the 1700’s, and a wool coverlet, besides an old pewter dish and a rug, which are now at a brother’s home in St. Paul. A Mrs. Haug from Toten, who is now living in Stoughton, Wisconsin, received the following family possessions from Nor way: various pieces of table silver from the 1800’s, three or four small copper kettles, a brass mortar, some plated ware, [133] and so forth; besides these, several articles that have been given away. A Miss Halvorson of Madison, Wisconsin, has received the following family articles from Norway in the past few years: a hand-woven coverlet, parts of a Hardanger costume, an old silver bridal ornament made from a 1683 medal, with three small coins and leaf dangles. She also has items that her great-grandparents brought over at the end of the last century from the Voss area: a bentwood box from 1655 and a small chest with iron bands from 1783; and several such small chests are scattered among branches of the family.

The Egeberg family in California brought several large heirlooms from Trøgstad in Østfold, among them some antique furniture. A mirror was bought as an antique in Nor way in 1930.

The inventories that follow show typical results of trips made to Norway by people of Norwegian descent.

Mr. Sampson Leir, from Sunnhordland, now a man of seventy-five who lives in North Dakota, brought various articles with him when he emigrated in 1906, and again after a visit to Norway in 1922. Most of them he has now given to the Pioneer Daughters of North Dakota, who keep the things in the Hillsboro courthouse. The gift includes the following objects, some of which Mr. Leir bought: a large pewter bowl with handles, a very fine work from Bergen, dated 1791; a couple of pewter dishes which apparently are Norwegian, dated 1741 and 1787; two English pewter plates; a blown-glass bottle; a rose-painted ale bowl; various wooden plates with badly worn rosemaling; a butter or cheese mold with a carved design; two weaving frames crowned with a stylized horse motif; and some finely turned wooden sticks for net making.

Around the turn of the century, tourist travel to Norway increased considerably; some of these tourists were wealthy enough to search for Norwegian antiques. Old Norwegian silver was sought, and much of it can be tracked down in [134] England and the United States. The increased interest of foreigners in such articles and the subsequent rising prices of antiques also focused attention on old Norwegian city and country art. Articles of this type now have value not only because of sentiment or tradition, but also as antiques. In the old Norwegian objects one finds in the homes of this century’s immigrants, family tradition does not play the extensive role it once did. What one cannot inherit, one can buy from others. The important thing is to embellish one’s American home with antiques from the old country.

Innumerable Brooklyn families have Norwegian antiques in their possession, most of them of modest value. Some were brought over during the immigration of this century, some were acquired on later visits to Norway. Many families from Sørland are well supplied with table silver (Sørland stamped), chiefly spoons, fish servers, and tea strainers, as well as yarn holders and containers for smelling salts; some are from the 1700’s but most are from the nineteenth century.

Small silver items from the 1800’s are also found frequently with Vestland families, most of them stamped by Bergen silversmiths. Old silver from Bergen seems to be more universally distributed among the immigrant groups than that from other parts of Norway. It is not unlikely that the period of waiting in Bergen tempted the emigrants to buy silver souvenirs, preferably spoons, brooches, and rings.

Antique Norwegian silver of really great age is to be found, but it is often difficult to ascertain whether it came with the immigrants or in other ways. Very few large pieces can be located, with the exception of silver tankards and some bridal crowns, which were especially sought after by tourists. A certain type of silver beaker from Bergen must also have been attractive to tourists, and in general silver beakers and spoons are the most common immigrant possessions.


So far we have not mentioned the Norwegian centers of colonization on the west coast, mainly because they entered [135] the immigration picture rather late. There, as far as I could see, nothing in the way of pioneer relics had been saved, not even the simplest kind of kitchen equipment or primitive tools of the 1800’s, such as were characteristic of the local museums of the Midwest. The few objects which are housed in the University of Washington Historical Museum in Seattle are exceptions. My attempt at making an inventory, even in such characteristic Norwegian settlements as Paulsbo and Stanwood on the coast of Washington, brought negative results. It is true that one can stumble upon exceptions like the Rustad family in Paulsbo, where a Norwegian baroque chair and a little old silver and pewter can be seen. But if antiques come to light occasionally, they have been brought over in our day; they did not arrive with the first Norwegian immigrants.

As far as the west coast is concerned, one should consider the dampness, which is harmful to wooden objects there just as it is along the west coast of Norway. Moreover, in Washington one is dealing with fisherfolk, who are more mobile than the immigrants in the farming region of the Middle West. The main reason, however, for the lack of immigrant goods in the coastal and country districts of Washington is undoubtedly the same as that previously mentioned for places like North Dakota. The Norwegian influx there came mainly during the steamship era, and the easier ocean trip, besides the length of the journey across the continent, made large quantities of baggage unnecessary and also troublesome. The result is that, in Washington as in the Red River Valley, little original immigrant goods can be found, in spite of the existence of a comparatively large population of Norwegian descent.

Even though inherited chests and silver are not completely missing among the second- and third-generation Norwegians of the west coast cities, the bulk of immigrant goods is owned by the immigrants of our day, specifically those who came between 1900 and 1940. Following are some examples of private collections of Norwegian antiques in Seattle. One [136] woman inherited from her father, who emigrated from Tysnes, a pretty Regency chair in oak (one of a set of twelve), two baroque brass candlesticks, some silver spoons with Bergen hallmarks (one from 1766 and several from the 1800’s), and some typical food containers from Vestland. A woman from Sunnmøre who emigrated in her youth brought along a rich bridal outfit with a silver crown and the accompanying ornaments.

A family with an impressive Norwegian genealogy brought over a rich inheritance which still adorns the homes of both the first and second generation in Seattle: a corner cupboard carved by Anders Smith, a small baroque chest, a Louis XVI mirror, and such silver items as a tankard, a small dish, a cream mug, a round box, beakers, a tumbler, numerous spoons, and so on. The table silver is mainly from the early 1800’s, but there is also a Renaissance spoon from 1590 in the collection. Many of the pieces show the Bergen hallmark. There are valuable gold ornaments such as bracelets, rings, and earrings, some of which have distinguished traditions of ownership. Linens, too, were brought over, among them a tablecloth with twelve napkins, dated 1817. Besides the heir looms still in Seattle, several have been divided among branches of the family who are located elsewhere in the United States.

In Seattle there are also a few instances of the typical antique collector’s home, in which the furnishings were bought in Norway and imported in their entirety. Thus, in one house I listed quantities of old peasant chests and boxes, Empire chairs, mirrors, decanters, and glasses, besides a rich selection of table silver and other small silver items from the 1800’s. The above examples are of course mere samplings of what I was able to observe during my short stay at each place. It proved almost useless to ask Norwegian Americans about articles in their own towns, since very few were aware of the more or less hidden Norwegian objects in their own surroundings. [137]


The reader may be tempted to ask, “Have all the goods which have been brought over inspired the development of a Norwegian-American craftwork, marked by tradition, in the areas where people of Norwegian descent are especially concentrated?”

This question can be partially answered by going through the archives of the Index of American Design, now located in the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C. This organization was set up during the depression period of the 1940’s to create jobs for needy artists. The plan was to get an inventory of American folk art through drawings, water colors, and so forth. The material received was extensive enough to keep a permanent office staff busy with the task of cataloguing and publishing it, but it is not impressive either in quantity or quality when one considers the tremendous areas of population that it covers. This may be due in part to a somewhat uneven and unplanned apportionment of the work, for the collection gives the impression that in certain states the investigation was quite limited.

In seeking material showing Norwegian influence, it is natural to go through the archive maps for the Midwest States. The result is very meager and even the remarkable carved altarpiece from Benson, Minnesota, which has received so much publicity through the Index of American Design, should probably not be emphasized too strongly here, since it is not notably influenced by Norwegian tradition. The altarpiece was made by Lars Christenson Kjørnes, a Sogning, who came to the United States as a child. His father, Christen Olsen, was a traveling schoolteacher and a very able wood carver, though most of his activity in this line was restricted to Amla and Kaupanger in Sogn before he emigrated in 1863. Kjørnes, a deeply religious farmer, worked on the altarpiece between 1880 and 1890 but died before it was finished; so far as is known, it was never used. It is now preserved in the [138] Norwegian-American Historical Museum at Decorah, Iowa. One cannot help being moved by its naïve charm.

Among other manifestations of the need for artistic expression among the pioneers of the past century, I shall mention some small wood sculptures by anonymous lumberjacks, usually showing riding scenes with dogs, and similar subjects. In the Index of American Design they are treated as the work of Norwegian immigrants, but their anonymity and their naturalistic treatment, without a distinct style, suggests that this should be accepted with some reservation.

My own travels naturally gave me a good opportunity to observe directly the derivations of Norwegian art and craft-work on American soil, but the results of this approach were meager and were limited almost entirely to products of very recent date. The only item of interest that I noted from the nineteenth century was the story of a Norwegian named Hendrickson from Clarissa, Minnesota, who in his day made about ninety spinning wheels of Norwegian design. References to other makers of spinning wheels and chairs appear infrequently in other parts of the Middle West, but every thing indicates that their production was of the most ordinary character.

It is easier to check on the artistic expression among descendants of Norwegians in this century who may have found their inspiration in Norwegian themes. In all honesty it must be said that a sound Norwegian tradition and genuine originality are lacking among one and all of the practitioners whose works of carving and rosemaling I have seen. Silver brooches may perhaps be more easily adapted to modern needs, as has been done by the Eriksen firm, which manufactures reproductions of Norwegian peasant ornaments. This company has attained a reputation that extends far beyond its home area of Fargo, North Dakota.

For completeness’ sake I shall also mention some hobbyists who have been inspired by the folk art of the homeland, but apparently without any real family tradition behind them. [139] In 1950 an old Norwegian in North Dakota was still doing some simple wood carving, mainly in the form of representative folk characters, and a Norwegian-born woman in Roseau in northern Minnesota was making fairy-tale figures in the form of rag dolls. A recent immigrant to Minnesota from Hardanger carves in the Kinsarvik style as a hobby, while his wife has made various tablecloths and similar articles in Hardanger work for her children and friends. Whether or not it is widespread, one can certainly say that women of Norwegian descent practice this form of embroidery in various places in the United States.

Rosemaling is probably the most popular folk art tradition in the Norwegian areas of the United States, but, in this field as well, what has been produced on American soil is the work of the newer immigrants or the second generation. The late Per Lysne, a Sogning who lived in Stoughton, Wisconsin, has probably won the greatest esteem among his fellow Norwegian Americans in this area of craftwork. The interest in Norway that flared up during the war years probably was one reason why so many people, especially women, have in the succeeding years gone in for rosemaling as a means of earning money, or purely as a hobby. From this activity there have crystallized certain popular objects that have become easily salable in gift shops; for example, sandwich plates.

This enthusiasm for rosemaling has also led to a wide spread interest in restoring the old objects; for example, in freshening up worn decorations on old emigrant chests and boxes. This has resulted in considerable amateur work, unfortunately of poor quality, in some of the homes.

Viewing the rather slender expressions of Norwegian folk art tradition in the United States as a whole, one soon be comes aware of the following facts: Most of those who are carrying it on today do so on a fumbling, amateurish level, and show an obvious unfamiliarity with the best in the tradition that they are trying to maintain. The great creative talents are lacking, and in any case it would probably be [140] impossible for an artistic genius to carry on in the old tradition.

It is natural for a Norwegian scholar to evaluate the last offshoots of Norwegian folk art tradition in America in the same way as similar phenomena in Norway. Experience has shown that those who work on a traditional basis in wood carving and rosemaling in our century have not managed to rise above an insignificant eclectic level. The peasant art that they most immediately draw from is that of the nineteenth century. Folk art in Norway declined greatly during the last half of that century, so that present-day practitioners of the tradition have far from the best background for their work. In addition, the best expressions of Norwegian rosemaling, which emerged in the last part of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century, were concentrated mainly in certain mountain regions of eastern Norway. Thus the folk art tradition was necessarily of quite different quality in various parts of the country.

The last generations have experienced great changes of material and social character, and it goes without saying that these changes have come to have an effect on the patterns of living, on modern man’s material needs, and on his esthetic appreciation, in the country as well as in the city. Not until these changes become clear to us and we have defined our new needs and esthetic cravings will we be prepared to shape our products for use and comfort. Only then will a possibly inherited sense for form and color come to full flower. Consequently it would be reasonable and natural to expect that artistic abilities and talents today should turn to fields other than carving and rosemaling. Even though it lies outside the province of this article to discuss modern pictorial art, it shall nevertheless be mentioned that one frequently comes across Scandinavian-sounding names in the radically modern exhibitions in American cities, mainly in the fields of painting and graphics. Perhaps this shows the direction taken by inherited talents. It might be still more rewarding to turn [141] the searchlight on the ranks of modern American craftsmen and look for those of Norwegian descent there, something which I had no opportunity to do.

But why is it that the Norwegian pioneer generations of the past century have left no folk art inspired by the fresh memory of home tradition? As indicated earlier, my own experiences coincide with the picture one gets from the aforementioned poor results in the Index of American Design. The reasons for this generally negative impression are of more interest than the few exceptions that can possibly be pointed out. Was the generally rugged pioneer life of the farmers the reason for artistic stagnation? The very primitive, homemade tools for the daily work of both men and women which are displayed in many local museums, some of which evidently were made by Norwegian settlers, have a utilitarian, artless appearance. They were produced under circumstances of need and haste resulting from the harsh struggle for existence, common to all nationalities in the New World. Ordinarily it took several generations before the new country allowed a surplus of time and energy for possible artistic development. And by that time the homeland tradition was broken; it was just a faint romantic memory, if it existed at all. The new and strange circumstances had created a new spirit and a new style of life among the descendants of the immigrants.

It is reasonable to consider still another cause. It has long been a popular myth in Norway that every Norwegian farmer bore within him the germ of an artist. Folk art investigations of later years have killed the myth, for one now begins to glimpse specialists behind the rich folk art-rosemalers, carvers, tapestry weavers, as well as folk musicians, each with his special talent. Those folk artists who did not live entirely from the soil, but were paid in part by the well-to-do farmer who appreciated art and tradition, had no incentive to emigrate. Nor did they do so. The great majority of emigrants from the Norwegian country districts came from the soil and went to the soil.


<1> I am very grateful for the kind assistance that I received everywhere, from institutions and from people, from the east coast to the west. I should like to thank those who made my trip possible: the American Association of University Women, which generously provided for my subsistence for a whole year; the Fulbright Fund, which paid my travel expenses; the estate of Th. Henrichsen and Det Vitenskapelige Forskningsfond av 1919 (Scientific Research Fund of 1919), which provided funds for travel in important Norwegian-American areas such as Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota. I also wish to thank Mrs. Janice Stewart of Shawano, Wisconsin, author of The Folk Arts of Norway (University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1958), who translated this article into English.
<2> The library of about five thousand volumes, however, had already been given to the State Historical Society of Wisconsin in 1868.
<3> See Hjalmar Rued Holand, Old Peninsula Days (Ephraim, Wisconsin, 1943), and Den siste folkevandring (The Last Migration-Oslo, 1980); Theodore C. Blegen, Norwegian Migration to America, 1825-1860, 335 (Northfield, 1931).
<4> In l926 Dahle bought the farm and the existing buildings, which had been built by the pioneer, Osten Olson Haugen. The place got the name Nissedahle from the family’s home in Telemark. “Little Norway” is now run by Dahle’s sister and brother-in-law, Professor and Mrs. Asher Hobson of Madison. An elderly Latvian immigrant, a Mr. Stikhevitz, is the permanent guide, providing atmosphere with his picturesque English and his Hallingdal costume and red stocking cap!
<5> Rosemaling is decorative painting in various colors. A mangling board (rulle) was a primitive form of hand mangle.
<6> It was also used earlier in the Paris Exposition of 1889.
<7> Published by the American Association for State and Local History (Washington, D.C., 1944).
<8> This list was worked out by Bertha L. Heilbron, editor of Minnesota History, the quarterly magazine of the Minnesota Historical Society.
<9> From a letter to the author from Harriet Voxland, a teacher in Kenyon, Minnesota. A hus postil is a household devotional book; a skaut is a head kerchief.
<10> A goro iron resembled a waffle iron. It had two facing flat surfaces of square design, and was used on top of the stove.

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