Museum of Danish America

Culture | FIND Iowa
Apr 17, 2024 | 06:14

What cultural contributions have Danish Americans made to Iowa? 

From windmills to toys, immigrants from Denmark have contributed more to American culture than you might expect. Let's visit the Museum of Danish America to learn all about it.


(Abby Brown, host of FIND Iowa, is standing outside in front of a Dutch windmill wearing a purple coat.)

[Abby Brown] Windmills are all over Iowa. Some are on family farms. A reminder of a time when they were used for pumping water or milling grain.

(An old fashioned, wooden windmill in a farm field.)

[Abby]There are huge windmills scattered in groupings around the state gathering modern day wind energy.

(Modern day industrial windmills in a farm field.)

[Abby] And then there's this. An authentic 1848 Danish windmill, right here in the middle of Elk Horn, Iowa. A really cool and really big symbol of the Danes, or Danish people living here in our state.

(Abby points behind her to the 1840 Danish windmill.)

[Abby] And there is one more really important place that I want to show you.

(The Elk Horn water tower is seen in the background.)

(traditional Danish music)

(Museum of Danish America, Elk Horn, Iowa. The building is in the shape of a lodge. It is tan in color with brown, wood accents. Out front of the building flies, from left to right, the American flag, the Danish flag and the state of Iowa flag.)

[Abby] This is the Museum of Danish America, the National Museum. Like, the place to come to learn about Danish immigrants. Can you imagine the artifacts, like cooking utensils and toys, that are inside? Let's go talk to my friend Tova about getting to see some of them.

(traditional Danish music)

(Abby walks toward the building.)

[Abby] This is a really special place inside the museum, called visual storage

(A hallway within the museum with explanation posters on the wall and items in glass cases on shelves beside the informational posters.)

[Abby] So if you visit the museum, you don't get to come in here; but you can see everything through the windows from the outside.

(A shelving unit with top to bottom shelves. On the shelves are historical items.)

[Abby] Tova is here with me. We're going to get to actually pick some of these things up and explore them a little bit, correct?

(Tova Brandt, executive director, Museum of Danish America, Elkhorn, Iowa, and Abby are standing in front of the shelving units inside the visual storage room. Tova is wearing a dark green sweater. Abby is wearing a jean jacket with a purple shirt underneath.)

[Tova Brandt] That's right. That's right.

[Abby] So, what types of things are we going to see today?

[Tova] Well, we're going to see some things that Danish immigrants brought with them to the United States, and some other things that were actually made and used here in America that still kind of connect to Danish culture. And I am wearing my gloves today because one of the ways that we keep all of these museum items safe is by not touching them directly with our hands.

(Tova holds up her hands to show that she is wearing purple, latex gloves.)

[Tova] We keep them safe in this big room. We keep them safe in the temperature. And keeping a safe, cozy environment for them. And that makes sure that they all last for years and years, for everyone to enjoy.

[Abby] How old are some of the things in this room?

(Rows and rows of shelves with items on them.)

[Tova] Most of the things in this room are probably around a hundred years old.

[Abby] Wow!

[Tova] But some things in this room are 10,000 years old.

[Abby] Wow!

[Tova] We have some things that were part of early Danish culture before history even began. From way back in the Stone Age. And these were found in Danish farmlands. People dug them up, and they just proved that people have lived in Denmark for at least 10,000 years. And some of those things came to the United States with families. And some of them then were given to our museum.

[Abby] That's incredible.

[Tova] Yeah!

(traditional Danish music)

(Tova places handmade Nisse on the table as well as boxes holding Baribe and Ken dolls.)

[Abby] Now these I recognize. I played with Barbie and Ken as a kid. How do these relate to Danish America?

[Tova] Well, it's the American part of Danish America. We have here two different examples of the types of things that Danish and Danish American kids might play with.

(Tova lifts the box lid on the Barbie doll.)

[Tova] This is actually a Barbie that has been dressed in a Danish folk costume.

[Abby] So the Barbies would have been made here in America, but a Danish family went ahead and created the outfits for them and dressed them in their Danish clothes.

[Tova] That's right. So here is Ken.

(Tova holds up the Ken doll dressed in Danish clothes.)

[Tova] This is not the clothes you go to work in. And this would be. . . And quite a long time ago, too. . . This isn't even what people would have worn when they arrived in the United States as immigrants. These are the folk costumes that still get worn if you're doing folk dances for a special occasion or a performance. That is when you would see them still in action.

(Ken is dressed in a long white shirt with a red and blue vest. He has on brown, knee length pants with white socks and black shoes.)


(Tova holds two, small, hand-made Nisse in her hands. They are made from red and white yarn. They have red hats and are wearing a brown shirt, green pants.)

[Tova] These nisse, they usually wear tall red caps and they are dressed in either red or green. They are a long part of the stories and tales that people have shared in Denmark for a long, long time.

[Abby] Okay, so in these stories would these gnomes or nisse, what sort of adventures would they be going on?

[Tova] Well, they could often be helpers around the farm, if you treat them well. They could also be mischievous. If you have a missing sock and you don't know where that missing sock went, you can blame the nisse.

[Abby] You know what? There are nisse living in my house.

[Tova] Exactly, exactly. So the nisse can kind of be blamed for all the little things that go wrong. But if you treat them well, maybe they'll help you out. We see nisse a lot around Christmastime. Around the holidays. And in fact, in Denmark it's not Santa who brings presents to kids, it's the Christmas nisse, the Julenisse. So that's another good reason to treat the nisse well.

(Segment closes with a close up image of two nisse with glasses. The one closest to the camera is wearing a white shirt and sitting in a chair. The next one over is wearing a red and blue sweater. Both have red caps.)


(Segment starts with Abby finalizing the word Iowa in yellow Lego blocks.)

[Abby] Perfect. Tova, I know what these are. These are Legos. What are they doing in the museum?

[Tova] Well, Legos were invented in Denmark.

[Abby] Wow! You've got to be kidding me. because these are everywhere in Iowa and all over the world.

[Tova] Exactly, exactly. But it's still a Danish company. The headquarters are in Denmark. That's why we have them here.

[Abby] That's fantastic!


[Abby] Wow, the Museum of Danish America right here in Iowa has taught me so much about the many ways the Danes have made our state wonderfully unique.

[Announcer] Funding for FIND Iowa has been provided by the following supporters.

(text on screen Find Iowa, The Coons Foundation, Pella, Gilchrist Foundation)

(text on screen Iowa PBS Education)