In the 1800s, European immigrants coming to America had to find a way to preserve the objects indispensable to their lives, bringing their most precious belongings on an ocean voyage to a far-away new home. Most families were only able to bring what could fit into one trunk. The belongings immigrant families chose to keep show us what they cherished most, giving important clues about their customs and culture.
Before coming to the Wisconsin Historical Museum, this trunk belonged to a Norwegian family. It traveled from an ocean port in Norway, across the Atlantic, and, eventually, to Wisconsin. When the family arrived in Wisconsin, they probably used the trunk to furnish their new home, where it reminded them of their homeland and their journey to America. This Norwegian family was one of many to travel to Wisconsin in the 1800s. By 1850, Norwegians had grown to be the second largest ethnic group in the state.
Trunks like this, decorated with colorful paint and a family name, were a unique mark of Norwegian culture. Norwegian immigrants were known to paint colorful, floral designs to adorn their trunks, a folk art style known as rosemaling. In Wisconsin, Norwegians expanded on this tradition, popularizing rosemaling throughout the United States. Per Lysne, who immigrated from Norway in 1907, revived the art of rosemaling with his business in Stoughton, Wisconsin. He brought many people’s attention to this Norwegian folk art and inspired generations of rosemalers throughout the country. Today, many Wisconsinites recognize rosemaling as part of the state’s identity. Norwegian trunks carried more than valued possessions to America: covered with the art of their homeland, they brought Norwegian traditions across an ocean, a continent, and across centuries.
When people in the countryside of Norway started painting floral designs on wooden trunks, they didn’t know that one day, their art would end up in a museum across the world. Think about the traditions that your family has. Did they come from your grandparents or your great-grandparents? Do they come from the place you live, or where your family used to live? Or have you created new traditions all on your own?
One day, historians will study the traditions we practice today. One of your traditions could even end up in a museum, so that people in the future can learn about how Wisconsinites like us once lived.
This story is part of the Wisconsin Historical Museum Mini Tour
Written by Nick Ostrem, April 2020.