Norwegian Drinking Bowl c. 1850

This drinking bowl, known as a kjenge, was brought to Iowa by Norwegian immigrant family. The horse shape that makes up the two handles is a fertility symbol in Norway. The bowl would have been passed around at celebrations. It was carved from a single piece of burl wood. The painting technique is known as rosemåling, a traditional form of decorative folk art which originated in Norway. The shape and painting styles place its origin as the west coast of Norway. Ale bowls typically stayed with the farm or house where they were made. When the farm or home changed hands, the ale bowl would have been left with the new owners.

  • Artifact: Norwegian Drinking Bowl
  • Date: c. 1850
  • Museum Location: Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, Decorah, IA

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Jennifer Kovarik, Registrar, Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum: So this is an ale bowl, and in Norway it's called a Kjenge. And that's because it has these two handles on it. And this particular version has two horse heads. And the horse is a very traditional symbol in Norway for fertility. And these particular bowls would have been used at festive occasions that sometimes dealt with people celebrating changes in their lives. And this particular bowl dates from about the Year 1850.
It has a lot of painting on it, or it did at one time. We can't see a lot of it because of age and the wear on this bowl, but it has some rosemaling on it. And because of the type of rosemaling, and because of the shape, I can tell that this comes from the west coast of Norway.
You would hold it like this, and you pass it from one person to another. So this is not something that you drink out of yourself, but rather a bowl that you use for sharing the drink. There are some ale bowls that look just like this that come from sort of that same tradition, that same area, but other ale bowls are plain, or plainer, and what I mean by that, is they don't have these handles. They're just a bowl. Some of the bowls are larger, and would be ones that you would dip a smaller piece like this into. So there'd be a larger bowl to hold the drink, and then one for actually drinking out of. And some of those bowls, and this isn't one of those, but some of those bowls are a little bit smaller and they're shaped like birds. And so the birds float in this sort of pond, if you will, of the drink, until they're ready to have somebody take a drink out of that.
I think what's really interesting is that most of these pieces stayed with the farm. So if the farm changed hands, one of these pieces stayed with the farm as a part of the property. So these would be made for the farm, made for the house, and then stayed with a house, stay with the farm for their lifetime. And there is one tradition that you can sort of know what your fate is going to be. So you would take the edge of this and bite into it, and flip it over your head. And if it landed like this, then that was the good luck and you would survive another year. But if it landed like this, or was tipped, then bad luck maybe be coming upon you so, yeah, so there's some interesting traditions that are within this tradition here.

Artifact provided courtesy of the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, Decorah, IA.