Posts Tagged ‘ale bowl’

Ale Bowls: Migration of a Tradition

March 28, 2010

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

More Than I Was Looking For

March 1, 2010

The plot of Old World Murder (coming October, 2010!) revolves around an antique Norwegian ale bowl.  I’ve always been intrigued by the beautifully carved and/or painted  bowls.  I recently went to Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa, to take photos and learn more about them.

On both counts, the trip was a success.  More about that later, though, because something unexpected happened along the way.

I was introduced to Norway’s rich folk-art traditions when I began working at Old World Wisconsin in 1982.  I sought out more gorgeous woodenware and textiles at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin’s main museum, and at Little Norway (a special place near Mount Horeb, Wisconsin).  Still, people told me I had to visit Vesterheim.

An exhibit suggests what life was like in the old country.

Vesterheim (which means “Western home” in Norwegian) is a world-class museum located in small-town America.  Way back in the 1870s, Norwegian-Americans in Northeast Iowa began collecting and preserving objects that documented their ongoing story.  The collection now holds over 24,000 artifacts.

The first time I walked into the exhibit hall at Vesterheim, years ago, I was stunned by the collection’s depth.  A curator at Old World at the time, I soaked up as much as I could.  The material culture on display helped me understand more about the Norwegian families we interpreted at Old World.  I studied construction techniques, estimated measurements, considered paint colors and thread choices.  I analyzed weaving and knitting patterns, and dreamed of recreating them.

One of the knitted textiles in the Vesterheim collection.

Years later, I visited Vesterheim again, this time with my husband Scott.  We went to enjoy a new exhibit that focused on the contributions Norwegian-Americans made during the American Civil War.  The programming and displays helped me consider broader stories.  I imagined the questions and challenges that faced immigrants who had made the long and difficult journey to their Western home, only to have war erupt in their new country.

On my recent trip to Vesterheim, I entered the museum with one goal:  look at the ale bowls on display.  It was, of course, impossible to ignore the rest of the exhibits!  And this time, instead of thinking only about the objects, or even the Norwegian-American experience, I found myself asking the next logical questions.  How did what I was seeing compare to what my own (non-Norwegian) ancestors experienced?

One of the exquisite carved pieces in Vesterheim's collection.

Vesterheim is a treasure that needs to be experienced more than once.  Over the course of my own visits, I processed what I was seeing and hearing on different levels, in different ways.  The artifacts and exhibits are important as examples of folk art.  They are important because of the stories they tell—or at least suggest—about the people who originally made, owned, used, and ultimately preserved them.

And they are important because they help all of us connect with our own heritage.  Vesterheim uses the story of Norwegian immigrants to explore aspects of identity and culture common to everyone.

Norwegian-Americans are lucky that thoughtful individuals did collect and preserve such an abundance of folk art.  But those of us who descend from cultural groups which did not, perhaps, manage to save so much can be inspired to wonder about and search for our own ethnic and folk art traditions.  In my case, how did my Swiss and Dutch and Scottish forebears express themselves with paint brushes, or knitting needles, or carving knives?

Some of our ancestors carried what they could of their lives from old world to new in  rosemaled trunks.  Others tucked what was precious in battered suitcases, lumpy bedrolls, leather pouches…and, simply, their hearts.  Vesterheim, and other historic sites and museums, remind us of that.  Their collections hold treasures for us all.

To learn more about Vesterheim, its collections, its educational programs and special events, and its ongoing classes in folk art and culture, visit

To get a glimpse of this wonderful place, check out the video:

And soon, I promise—on to the ale bowls!