Hemslöjd Prior to Industrialization

A wide variance of climate, topography, and historical factors within Sweden caused different areas to develop different handicraft traditions. The emphasis here is on Anders Zorn’s province of Dalarna and the market town of Mora, where he was born in 1860. We think of Sweden as a progressive, modern, and innovative society, yet as late as 1870, 70% of the population lived in the country, where conditions were often difficult. It was no accident that nearly 25% of the people in Zorn’s home district emigrated to the United States in the nineteenth century, where they found greater opportunity. It is sometimes stated that the basis for Sweden’s so-called welfare state is rooted in common memory of hardship–that the whole should help the individual as a way to survive the rigors of life.

Travel writer Agnes Rothery wrote of Dalarna in the 1930s, “All countries are dream countries.... But [Dalarna] ... is the dear, familiar land of our childhood where the tiny panes in every cottage may be made of sugar, and the overhanging eaves of gingerbread.” 3 The world Anders Leonard Zorn was born into shared little of Rothery’s fairy-tale vision. His early life exemplifies the reality of rural Sweden and how hemslöjd was an important factor in everyday life and an important component in the struggle to survive.

Iona Plath wrote in Swedish Decorative Arts, “The winters in Sweden are long, dark, and cold; little work can be done out of doors, and rural families have always been obliged to spend the winter months largely within their homes. It was natural that the home and objects for the home should receive much attention and care.... During these dark months no member of the Swedish peasant family was allowed to be idle. While the women of the family worked their looms the men whittled and carved useful implements of wood. In the old days everything the family needed was made by some member at home....” 4

Zorn’s grandparents lived in the settlement of Yvraden, part of Mora parish. Many peasants from the area, and Zorn’s mother was one of them, often had to walk hundreds of miles to find work in distant towns, and sometimes, to nearby countries–the so-called herrarbete. Zorn’s mother, whom he called “Mona” (mother in Moramål, the local dialect), worked as a bottle washer in the university town of Uppsala, where she became pregnant by a Bavarian brew master, Johann Leonhard Zorn (1831-1872). Mona (1838-1920) returned to her parents farm, where Anders was born in a cowshed. The baptismal record at Mora Church specifies that Zorn’s mother was the maid Grudd Anna Andersdotter, but no father’s name is recorded.

Life was difficult on the little farms that dotted the area. Infant mortality was staggering, and famine was not unknown. An illegitimate child was more than likely to suffer from neglect and early death, and those who survived adolescence often became alcoholics. As Zorn candidly stated in his memoirs, “It was of course considered the deepest disgrace in those days to have a child out of wedlock, and one had every reason to fear the worst for such an unfortunate.... I had no father. I was the fruit of an accident and a German brewer living in Finland was to blame for my life’s origin.”

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