Ale Bowls: Migration of a Tradition

When I was developing the plot for Old World Murder, I needed a Norwegian artifact for a major plot point.  I chose to feature an ale bowl.  These old tankards, which are often beautifully carved and painted, have appealed to me ever since my Old World Wisconsin days.

I knew the bowls were used historically to commemorate special occasions.  I could easily imagine them being passed from hand to hand in some long-ago smoky Norwegian cabin.  And honestly, that was about it.

Carol Hasvold worked from 19th-century accounts to understand drinking customs in Norway.

I recently went to Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum to learn more about ale bowls.  The visit began with a program given by former registrar Carol Hasvold, “Festive Events and Drinking Customs.”  In rural parts of old Norway, she said, ale was brewed to mark two kinds of events:  those tied to the annual cycle, such as harvest-time and Christmas, and those marking special personal events.

For example, ten or twelve barrels of ale might have been brewed for a wedding.  Strong ale implied that a family was prosperous, and their farm well managed.    The bride price was negotiated with ale.  After the ceremony itself, friends and family attended a reception at the newlyweds’ new home.  The bride was expected to throw a small bowl over her house!  If the bowl did not make it over the roof, she could expect bad luck.  As ale bowls were drained during the reception, guests tossed coins into the bowls as thanks for the celebration.

This bowl is tiny--perfect, perhaps, for tossing over a house?

Ale also played a part in funeral rituals.  After a death, neighbors and friends came to the home with gifts of food or ale.  They stood in a ring around the casket and sang three hymns, with ale passed around between each.  Then the mourners carried the casket outside, placed an ale bowl upon it, and drank a final toast to the deceased.

In each event, when the ale was gone, the bowl was put away.  We’re lucky that ale did not have a long shelf life in the 19th century!  Sporadic use meant that many of the bowls survived for generations.  When emigrants decided what to take to America, they sometimes packed ale bowls into their trunks.

After the program, Alison Dwyer (left) and I sampled home-made ale (strictly for research purposes, of course.).

After the program, Vesterheim staff member Alison Dwyer was kind enough to show me some of the bowls in their collection.  You can get a behind-the-scenes look too!  Just check out the video:

The first ale bowl I ever saw was a beautiful artifact on display in the Kvaale House, at Old World Wisconsin.  The Kvaale exhibit portrays a well-settled Norwegian-American family, and the ale bowl is one of a handful of artifacts used to suggest an assimilated family that nonetheless treasures mementos from the homeland.  Now I know an ale bowl likely held specific memories, too.  A man might recall when the bowl was used to toast his own marriage.  A woman might remember how it sat on her mother’s coffin.

We can’t ever know all the human stories represented by any particular ale bowl…but isn’t it intriguing to wonder?

This is one of my favorite bowls in Vesterheim's collection.

(Have a question about Vesterheim’s ale bowls?  You can email Alison at

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19 Responses to “Ale Bowls: Migration of a Tradition”

  1. Meg Says:

    It certainly is intriguing to wonder. I think that’s one of the reasons I’ve fallen in love with museum work. I look at an artifact — the hats I’ve been working for my practicum, for instance — and wonder, who wore/used that, and when and what meaning did it hold and whyfore and all that [g].

    It’s absolutely fascinating.

  2. Laurie Rosengren Says:

    What a fun video!
    Thank you, and the museum, for sharing. Now I want an ale bowl . . .

  3. Karen Casey Fitzjerrell Says:

    Kathleen! The video is wonderful. It adds a new angle to the blog format for sharing, learning, entertaining. Good job. Lucky you to have a husband knowledgable in all the tech stuff! Nice to catch up on what you’re doing these days.


  4. Susan J. Tweit Says:

    Fascinating, Kathleen! Now I know what that two-headed bowl my granddad Olav kept from his parents’ Hardanger Fjord farm is about!

  5. Mary Trimble Says:

    What interesting research, Kathleen. I love the picture of you on the right side of your blog, when you worked at the historic site. I love places of historical enactment and have always admired those who get into the role like you did. Um….please pass the ale.

  6. Lori Orser Says:

    This is just fascinating, Kathleen (I know I’m not the first to use that word, but can’t come up with a better one!). Do you know if the bowls were used by Norwegian immigrants once they arrived? I ask because I just read (for myself) Giants in the Earth and re-recorded the sequel, Peder Victorius, for the State Library’s Talking Books program. While the men in the book seemed to enjoy their ale, often home-brewed, the women, for the most part, seemed quite opposed to drinking and seemed to base it on their Lutheran faith (and possibly on the after-effects of ale on their men-folk, although that wasn’t said outright). I wish my (maternal) Norwegian great-grandmother had saved something from her childhood and family home in Vikersund instead of embracing America to the point of not discussing her life before her marriage here. Anyway, thank you for the information — and I’ll be watching for the book! (Chloe for a Norwegian? I come from a family of Sonyas and Eriks! Interesting choice!)

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Lori, whether the bowls were used in traditional ways in the new world is an interesting question, and one I don’t have the answer to. The folk traditions discussed, such as the ale-related rituals at weddings and funerals, were much more common in rural areas than urban, even in the old country. So once people had made the transition to the US, my guess is that the traditions faded pretty quickly as immigrants’ energies were devoted to starting anew. But it would be interesting to look for evidence of that.

      Also–I haven’t read Giants in the Earth for years, but now I want to revisit it! So much good immigrant literature…hmmn, I sense a future post.

      And, Chloe is Norwegian-American. Her full name is Ingrid Chloe Ellefson. She grew up in Stoughton, which is a real very-Norwegian community near Madison, WI. Her parents are part of a dwindling minority of people in town who are completely of Norwegian descent. And Chloe’s mom happens to be a champion rosemaler, which helps Chloe as she struggles to solve the mystery!

  7. Lori Orser Says:

    Ah, Rosemaling — very popular around here too! Also Hardanger embroidery. I used to do a little of that, but even with a magnifying glass I can’t see well enough to do it anymore! And Ingrid Chloe Ellefson sounds properly Norwegian! I think Giants in the Earth is worth a re-read; I’m afraid I wasn’t as impressed with Peder Victorious, but it may have been the translation; it’s always hard to know. And I can’t read Norwegian!

    Thanks for your answer, Kathleen. I’m sure ale bowls are now treated as heirlooms, and not used in the traditional way, but I was wondering about the 1880-1910 era, when so many came from Norway to Wisconsin, Minnesota, and the Dakotas. Interesting question, but I expect you’re right, and that custom was probably given up by the younger generation as they tried to become “true Americans” (the struggle in “Peder,” aside from its “coming of age” aspect, is between Peder’s Mother trying to keep him Norwegian, and his own attempts to become “real” American, and only speak English, and read — even the Bible! Horrors! — in English. For that, it may be worth the slogging-through parts…)

  8. An Ale Bowl With Cow Heads « Sites and Stories Blog Says:

    […] Often ale bowls were carved with animal heads serving as handles. I chose to make my fictional bowl feature cow heads as handles, something I’d never seen on an actual bowl. It worked for the story. (For more visuals, see earlier posts Rosemaling Through Time and Ale Bowls:  Migration of a Tradition.) […]

  9. Leaving Home « Sites and Stories Blog Says:

    […] Vesterheim features a spectacular collection of artifacts. I’ve blogged before about their alebowls, and about my experiences taking rosemaling […]

  10. Rodney Becklund Says:

    I am selling an antique Norwegian Ale Bowl on Ebay I think it would be a great addition for the museum . It is painted in the Os style of Rosemaling from the Hordaland or Bergen region most likely carved in about the1880’s . This horse head ale bowl is only 6 inches from nose to nose on the horses, so it was a smaller drinking vessel. Here is a link to it .

  11. chairmakerjim Says:

    Hi Kathleen,
    I live in eastern ND and missed out on getting registered for the next ale bowl carving class at Vesterheim. How can I get some dimensional information for making an ale bowl? I do a fair amount of carving and until a class becomes available, I’d like to cut out a blank and try to carve one.
    Any thoughts?

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