Danish Model Ships

Culture | FIND Iowa
Apr 18, 2024 | 00:03:17

What does the model ship represent for Danish Americans?

Unlike Iowa, Denmark is surrounded by the sea. One way that Danish immigrants were able to hold on to their coastal heritage was by making model ships that reminded them of home. 


(Tova Brandt, Executive Director, Museum of Danish America, Elkhorn, Iowa walks towards Abby carrying two small model fishing ships. One of the ships has its red sail down and tied to the mast. It is smaller than the ship with two red sails that are open. Tova places them on the table before Abby as they begin to talk.

Tova is wearing a dark green sweater and has on a pair of purple latex gloves to protect the small model ships she is carrying.

Abby Brown is wearing a blue jean jacket over a purple top.)

[Abby Brown] Now, there are ships all over the museum and there's lots of great stories around these, correct?

[Tova Brandt] That's right, that's right. A big difference between Denmark and Iowa is that Denmark is surrounded by the sea and has 400 islands.

(A map of Denmark.)

[Abby] Well that would be the exact opposite of Iowa.

[Tova] Exactly.

[Abby] Because we’re surrounded by land.


[Tova] Exactly. So that was a major cultural difference for Danish immigrants, who were used to being really, very connected to the sea, to sailing, to fishing. And then, you know, farming in landlocked areas, that's a real change. So a lot of Danish Americans continue to have, as a hobby, making model ships.

(Close up of the two small model ships on the table.)

[Tova] Sometimes Viking ships. Sometimes fishing ships. Other times, really elaborate sailing ships. And we have some of all of those examples here at the museum.

(Two model ships showing the elaborate scroll work on the bow of the ship on the left and the straight lines of the model ship on the right.)


(A large three masts wooden model ship.)

[Abby] And these are probably some of your smallest.

[Tova] These look like fishing boats.

[Abby] Okay.

[Tova] With a little cabin, you know, for not a big crew. They probably wouldn't go on long voyages. They would stay from island to island. Exactly.

[Abby] Bring back dinner.


[Tova] Exactly. Yeah, so this type of thing. This would have been handmade by someone who just enjoyed making it. Maybe it was for themselves. Maybe it was a gift for a family or friend.

[Abby] Okay.

[Tova] And maybe someone used it as a toy, or maybe someone used it as a display.

[Abby] But it's also become a tradition in the churches, correct?

[Tova] Right. There is a long tradition in Danish churches of many of them having a model ship hung from the ceiling inside the church.

[Abby] And why is that?

(Inside of a church sanctuary with a large wooden model ship hanging from the rafters above the pews.)

[Tova] Well, there's a lot of ways that the ship can symbolize different stories from the Bible like Noah's Ark.

[Abby] Oh sure.

[Tova] The ship can be a symbol of how we all are together, you know, kind of navigating the world together. But it also could be just a reminder of all of the friends and family and neighbors who would depend on the sea for their occupation, for travel.

(Ships docked in a harbor. A two mast sailing ship in the foreground with two modern and one single mast sailing ship in the background.)

[Tova] And maybe a hope that everyone returned safely. Or sometimes, even to remember people who might have been lost at sea.

(A ship moving out to sea from the harbor from the viewpoint of someone traveling on the moving ship.)

[Abby] Now, there are ships hung from the ceilings of churches here in Iowa. And I suspect, if I'm of Danish descent, I go to that church, and it really just reminds me of home.

[Tova] That's right. It really is a continuing tradition for a lot of churches that were founded by Danish immigrants, and still have a lot of Danish Americans involved in those congregations today. So even here in Elkhorn, the Elkhorn Lutheran Church has a model ship in the center of its congregation.

(Inside of a church sanctuary with a large wooden moodle ship hanging from the rafters above the pews.

Abby talking right to the camera.)

[Abby] So what does that ship make you think about or how does it make you feel? And if you had to move to a completely different part of the world, what would symbolize home for you?

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

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

(text on screen Iowa PBS Education)