In-depth Object Studies

69 The Mystery of the Mount Horeb Mangle Board

by Jenna Madsen

 

Mangle boards, or mangletre, were used in courtship in Scandinavia by young men who would carve these boards, and then leave the board on the doorstep of the woman the young man was interested in courting. If the woman accepted, she would take the board inside of her home and the courtship would begin. However, in the case that she rejected, in which she would leave the board outside, the young man would have to move on and carve a new board for his next courtship. Mangle boards are intricately carved, and are intended for women to use in the house as a pressboard. The Mount Horeb mangle board is unique, as it has elements incorporated that are not of Scandinavian origin. Not only for its unique design, but because the past is also unknown about it. Although we know the history of mangle boards, the Mount Horeb mangle board is a mystery, and more a folk art piece than a historical object.

Mangle boards are not only native to Norway (Norge), but also other countries in Scandinavia such as Denmark (Danmark), Iceland (Island), Finland (Suomi), and Sweden (Sverige). Other European countries such as Germany (Deutschland) and the Netherlands (Nederland) also have a history of mangle boards. The purpose of a mangle board was to be used in conjunction with a rolling pin to smooth wrinkles from linen. They are carved objects made for a practical purpose. They are the result of skilled and unskilled craft. They are folk art. They use symbolism. The design motifs are drawn from antiquity onward and from regions inside and outside Europe. Some of the earliest mangle boards are dated back to the 16th century. During the 17th and 18th centuries, mangle boards were produced in large quantities, but they would later be produced in smaller quantities. However, by the 20th century, mangle boards were relics, as they were re placed my mass produced sadirons, which were popular because they used heat whereas a mangle board does not.

Mangle boards are a work of art. It is not something that can nor should be read as a story as it does not tell a story. A mangle board is a carved, and sometimes painted, piece of wood, with visual language. Shapes, patterns, texture, line, composition, color, light, space, and so on are the components of the language, which the make of the mangle board strived for. Thus, when looking at a mangle board one must pay attention to visual qualities. There are both broad and specific qualities one must pay attention to when studying a mangle board. A broad quality is universal; it could be seen in any medium, material, or object, regardless if it was made by a human or nature. Specific qualities, like the surface and texture, are unique to that one object. Since the mangle board is a work of art, it expresses these qualities using visual means, and it is up to each person’s interpretation. These are qualities that are needed to gather an understanding of the Mount Horeb mangle board.

If one uses just aesthetics to study mangle boards, they are not assessing the boards for the expression that each one of them has. The definition for aesthetic in The Oxford English Dictionary is, “a set of principles concerned with the nature and appreciation of beauty, especially in art.” While one can appreciate how beautiful mangle boards are, it does not help in understanding the board itself. If you look at the board as the artist did, you yourself can experience what it was like to make the board and gather an understanding of the expression put into the board.

Mangle boards are made from woods such as birch, beech, or oak, which were the most popular choices. An average mangle board measures about 5 inches wide, 26 inches long, and 1 inch thick. The bottom of the board is flat, smooth and undecorated, as this is the part of the board that is used for pressing the linen, and of course, the top of the board is decorated, with a handle toward the end of the board. The handle helped with balancing the board on the roller to make the process easier. A form of rolling pin was needed to work with the mangle board, and by rolling the slightly dampened linen on the pin, and using a much force as possible, the operator of the mangle board would press the linen. The board needed to be placed at the right angles for a good rolling action to occur. This process was something that would take practice to gain experience.

The earliest known mangle board was produced in the nation of Frisia, located in the northern part of the Netherlands, in 1544, and is on display at the Zuiderzeemmuseum in Enkhuizen, Netherlands. The condition of these older boards depends on where the board is kept. Typically, boards in private collections are in better condition as they are often restored, whereas museum boards are kept how they are received. In English, the word “mangle” comes from the Dutch word “mangel,” which is the noun form of the verb mangelen, meaning, “to mangle.” Mangle board of course is an English term, and the term “board” is considered slang in native countries of the mangle board. Boards varied in different countries as far as specific elements. For example, animal shaped handles, like the horse, were popular in Norway and Sweden. The more beautiful the board, the more likely the woman was to accept the proposal, which is why mangle boards have so many similarities.

“Beware of the man with many mangle boards,” was an expression used to warn women of men who may be a problem for them later on in life. The aspect of the woman accepting a home tool as an acceptance of a courtship shows the role of the woman in the home in society during the 16th through 18th centuries. Up until about 1840, when the feminist movement began in Norway, women were considered incapable of the traditionally male roles in society. Single women lived under the authority of their fathers until they were married, and then the authority transferred to the husband. Therefore, in a sense, a woman accepting a mangle board from a suitor was her accepting her new authority. These mangle boards were carved for practical purpose, to be used around the house, and certainly not to be put on display. They are folk art pieces.

Folk art is primarily decorative than purely aesthetic. The Oxford English Dictionary definition for aesthetic is, “a set of principles concerned with the nature and appreciation of beauty, especially in art.” Mangle boards are filled with carvings and paintings of many different scenes, foliage, animals, religious, and many more themes that go along with inscriptions of names and prayers. So yes, mangle boards have aesthetic elements to them, but they are primarily decorative because the art has no meaning if one does not try to understand the piece itself. The Mount Horeb mangle board is a fascinating piece. The origins of the board are unknown, but we do know that the board was carved in 1806, as that is the date on the board. The carver of this board carved what appears to be a story featuring storks, swans, flowers, an angel.

The mysterious mangle board at Mount Horeb is a fascinating piece. Little is known about the board, and when reaching out to other museums, they had nothing that could match this piece. All that is known is that the board is dated 1906, and that it was on display in Little Norway for over 80 years, which is why it is in poorer condition today as it was not in a climate controlled area; the beetle damage however, was already there when Little Norway cataloged the board in 1935. Mount Horeb’s description of the board is as follows:

Flat bird tail shaped wooden piece with a handle in the shape of a horse fitted into the board at one end. The board is extremely carved with what is believed to be a wedding proposal motif. There are two swans facing each other at the base of the design and above this is what appears to be a church building with a stork perched on its spire. There are two plants with heart shaped leaves on either side of the stork and these are topped by birds above this is an angel facing a man and a woman with the year above them, above this is more flowers. The handle is in the shape of a horse with its head bowed wearing reigns. The entire edge of the piece is bordered in a zig-zag design. One corner of the board has been eaten away by beetles.

The board is also painted with colors of orange, green, yellow, red, and blue. The bottom is smooth like traditional mangle boards, and the top appears to be chip carved. The imagery featured on the board coincides with the same meaning as it means in other cultures as well. The swans are a symbol of love and partnership, the flowers are a symbol of fertility, and the storks are a symbol of children. There is what appears to be a Harold angel announcing the union of the two people featured on the board, which at first glance looks like the angel of death, but after finding that religion is often featured on mangle boards, concluded that it was just a poorly carved angel. There are also a series of three buildings that remain a mystery, but my hypothesis is that they are symbolizing two families becoming one, as two of the buildings appear to be houses, and one appears to be an official building where the marriage may have taken place. The board’s handle is a horse, so that indicated that this board is probably from either Norway or Sweden.

Still, this board is unique. Comparing this board to other boards from the 18th century, the Mount Horeb board is incredibly unique.

The board on the left was the most intricate board from Norway’s online digital archive of mangle boards. It depicts Christ on the cross with Adam and eve being tempted by the serpent at the bottom. Flowers and vines fill the empty space of the board. To the right is the Mount Horeb mangle board. There are similarities between the two boards. The Mount Horeb board has an angel, religious feature, on the left side of the horse, along with flowers and vines filling up what little space was left on this board. Both board feature the horse handle.

The swans at the bottom of the board, and the couple near the top located above the flowers and vines indicate their love growing. The man that carved this board appears to be more into the idea of having a relationship and growing with someone rather than just having authority over them. This man must have really loved the woman that he carved this board for, so that she could always be reminded of their relationship as she did her housework.

The buildings on the board are a very interesting element. Buildings are not seen on any other 18th century mangle board that I have seen, so the significance of these buildings is unknown. As previously mentioned, my hypothesis is that these buildings are the two homes of the bride and groom, with the church binding their families. The coloration of the buildings indicates where the buildings may be. If this board is in fact from Norway, the color of the buildings, along what appears to be a body of water as that is where the swans are located, that indicates that the area this board came from was a city like Alesund, Norway or Trondheim, Norway. If this board is not from Norway, it is possible that it came from a city like Reykjavik, Iceland or Copenhagen, Denmark. All of the cities above are known for their colorful coastal buildings, where the Mount Horeb mangle board may have come from, or at least where inspiration for the board was found. Of course, this is just a theory, not a fact, but it is something that I plan to continue researching as the project moves forward.

Boards in the 18th century were very intricate, yet very simple. They are further away from being folk pieces than the Mount Horeb board is. The typical mangle board was just a few designs such as circles and line work. They were very impersonalized unlike the Mount Horeb board. The Mount Horeb board leads me to believe that the man and women knew each other before they potentially began their courtship. Perhaps this may have been a wedding gift as the original one may have been lost, damaged or destroyed. The fact that mangle boards are considered folk pieces is fascinating.

The Mount Horeb mangle board still has a lot of questions that need to be answered, and I look forward to continuing my research on the board. The board is a fascinating piece that no one has ever seen before or even anything like it. With continued research on the board, and a better understanding yet of the history of mangle boards themselves, I am determined to find out more about the Mount Horeb mangle board so that this beautiful piece of folk art can be presented as best as possible, so that others will know about the Mount Horeb mystery mangle board.

Bibliography

1.Digital Museum of Norway
https://digitaltmuseum.no/search/?aq=text%3A%22mangletre%22&context=thing&sv=timeline Figure 1, Figure 4, Figure 7

2. Ingold, Tim. On Weaving a Basket. Routledge. 2000

3. Kahn, Eve. “The Arcane Charms of Mangle Boards.” New York Times. May 14, 2015.

4. Kugielsky, Anne. “Folk Art or Marriage Gift? 400 Years of Mangle Boards”. July 1, 2015.
http://www.antiquesandthearts.com/folk-art-or-marriage-gift-400-years-of-mangle-boards/

5. Maizels, John. Raw Creation: Outsider Art & Beyond. Phaidon Press. 2000

6. Nelson, Marion. “The Material Culture and Folk Arts of the Norwegians in America.” Perspectives on American Folk Art. W-W-Norton & Company

7. Raymond, Jay. Mangle Boards of Northern Europe. Streamline Press. 2015. Figure 2

8.Vesterheim National Norwegian-American Museum & Heritage Center online collections.
http://collections.vesterheim.org/items/browse?tag=Mangle+Board

9. http://www.oldandinteresting.com/mangle-boards.aspx Figure 3

10. 14 Most Colourful Towns and Cities in Europe. August 2, 2014
http://www.theculturemap.com/14-most-colourful-towns-cities-europe/ Figures 5 and 6

11. All images of the Mount Horeb mangle board are from my photos

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The Mystery of the Mount Horeb Mangle Board by by Jenna Madsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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