Family Fashions: Great-Great-Grandfather Sven’s Swedish Clog

· Family fashions that bear memories ·

For years, my sisters and I knew what we were getting for Christmas. No, not new sets of matching pajamas or something similar, something much more meaningful. Every year, in addition to stocking stuffers and a generous cash gift, my grandparents would also pass down a “heritage gift.” 

Often themed so that we all received similar gifts, we each were given a family heirloom. This could be something from my grandparents themselves or from generations before. A lover of history, I had always enjoyed learning my own family history, so these gifts were always something I looked forward to receiving. The nature of the heirloom could be anything: jewelry, books, trinkets, even small pieces of furniture. Each gift came with a handwritten note about the provenance of the object written by my grandma.

One such gift I received was a small child’s wooden clog. Quite worn, the little shoe has all the hallmarks of a träskor, or Swedish wooden clog. Heeled wooden sole and tooled leather upper attached with metal fastenings, if it weren’t for the wear on the leather, the clog could almost be a version of the shoe that is still popular today.

But it is certainly not from today. Instead, it is over 100 years old. The little Swedish clog was brought to the United States by my great-great-grandfather, Sven Gustaf Peterson (if that’s not the most Swedish name, I don’t know what is) around 1906. Emigrating to America in adulthood, legend is that Sven met my great-great-grandmother, Helga Davida, Anderson Peterson, on the boat to the United States. Helga was following her older brother, Andrew, who worked as the carriage driver and later chauffeur to a wealthy Chicago family. Andrew hooked Helga up with a job as the family’s cook. We’re not sure why Sven came to America, but after marrying Helga, the two moved to DeKalb, Illinois before setting in Denver where they lived the rest of their lives. My grandma, his granddaughter, remembers that he and Helga kept the clog in a cabinet in their home in Denver to remind them of their Swedish youth.

Though they could have no idea at the time, it was an apt choice. Around the time Sven brought the clog to America, there were 22 factories producing the träskor clogs in southern Sweden. Apparently somewhat ubiquitous in Sweden even then, the clog would later see international fame. Popular in the 1970s and again now, it is an appropriate symbol for remembering Sweden. Swedish brands such as Hanna Andersson and Swedish Hasbeens have helped keep wooden clogs current and still associated with Sweden.

But at the time, it was anything but a fashion statement. Instead, quite the opposite. In its role as a reminder of their Swedish youth, once can imagine that they gave up this pervasive style in order to assimilate in their new home. In order to symbolize their Swedish youth, it must have differed from their experience in America.

It’s hard to fully grasp the decisions our ancestors made to better their lives and futures. I don’t know the details of Sven and Helga’s lives in Sweden. I do know that they each decided their lives would be better in some ways if they moved to the United States. I’m sure the decision did not come lightly but ultimately the pros outweighed the cons.

I recently emigrated myself. I left the country my great-great-grandparents chose to settle in to move to England (I sometimes feel guilty about this, especially as I’m returning to the country my great-grandma’s (who I knew well) parents left just a little over 100 years ago…). But my experience is not the same. I didn’t travel here on a boat and I don’t rely on letters to stay in touch with loved ones back home, waiting weeks or even months before getting a reply. I text, message, or email with people in the US on a daily basis, FaceTime my mom once a week, and can go back to visit much faster and much cheaper. In fact, I’ve already been back once in the five months since living here.

And that is how the stark reality hits of what Sven and Helga did. They left behind their home country, family and friends, most like never to see many of them again. That is why the clog is such a potent reminder.

So, why the clog? As I’ve explored before, clothing has the innate ability to receive our imprint. As we wear our clothing, it absorbs our shape, our scent, and our memories. Sometimes those items of clothing have the power to take us back to a time and a place. This clog must have had this power for Sven.

Our relationship to shoes is especially unique. They literally carry our weight, protecting our sensitive feet from the dangers on the ground. They probably are our dirties item of clothing and they wear out the quickest. For this reason, they are often thrown away rather than kept. But they are often, also, one of the items we can’t bear to part with. In a way, they are as much a part of us as our feet.

Perhaps Sven had a certain memory associated with the shoe. Perhaps it was handmade by a loved one left behind. Perhaps it symbolized a kind of dress he left behind in Sweden, thus symbolizing the life he left behind. Perhaps it simply reminded him of his childhood years.

It was probably a little bit of all those reasons. We know this style of clog indicates Swedish origin, so it was an ideal reminder to Sven and Helga and those who saw it in their home.

Today, when I open the box it’s kept in, a whiff of old leather – like an antique shop – hits and the leather cracks. I wonder at the life my great-great-grandparents had in Sweden and appreciate their commitment to remembering their heritage. Passed down through my own grandmother, we still eat Swedish food and celebrate Swedish traditions. This clog was a remembrance of their Swedish youth but it is also a symbol of a culture passed through the generations. A symbol of all they gave up, but also of all they gained.

And what a potent symbol it is.

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