In the Spring of 2016, Valparaiso University’s Material Culture class studied artifacts from our collection, giving detailed historical context to some of our most unique and insightful artifacts. Thanks to Dr. Buggeln, Valparaiso University, the PoCo Muse collections volunteers, and the students for all the work and dedication put into this project.
The following research was compiled by Michelle Anderson:
The Importance of Traditional Objects and Heritage
Humans need objects to reveal a continuity of self, heritage, and relationships with other people. Especially in cases of immigration, an object, such this Swedish suitcase or svepask, found in the Porter County Museum, holds a great amount of significance. The svepask represents connection to homeland and heritage; but it also represents the resilience and hope that brought many immigrants to America, hope for a new home and a fresh start. Svepa means “to wrap,” while ask means “box”. Bentwood boxes are extremely common in Scandinavian culture, varying in size, color, and design.
This example might have been used as a carry-on during the long journey to America. It belonged to a Charles Johnson, born in Stockholm Sweden in 1851. He immigrated to the United States as a young adult and settled in Porter County in 1872. Johnson worked in the Porter County Brick Yard until he saved enough to buy land and settle his family on a farm in Suman Valley, Jackson Township. Before he passed away in 1913, Charles purchased more land for the family farm. His wife, Nellie, passed two years later in 1915. The children continued their legacy by buying and farming more land, eventually owning 400 acres. Local historians from the Bicentennial Committee of Porter County believed that the Johnson family contributed much to the agricultural progress of the county.
. The sides of the box are made of one solid piece of wood that is soaked it in hot or cold water until flexible and then bent around a mold. The bending is enhanced by kerfing; the woodworker cuts multiple vertical slits on the inside surface of the wood with a knife. After the wood is bent, the woodworker folds one side over the other side and stiches them together, here with birch bark. The outside was painted a dark teal made from milk paint. The lid of the box displays an innovative and practical latching mechanism; there are two posts that extend upwards from the center of opposite sides of the case with grooves on the inside. The lid slides and locks into these indentations with an audible click, explaining why these containers are colloquially referred to as “snap boxes.” According to Laurann Gilbertson, the chief curator from the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, most men in 19th century rural, Scandinavian villages had the skills to make a svepask.
Johnson’s svepask reveals to museums patrons how individual immigrants created meaningful lives, not forgetting their past as they shaped their new country. The svepask, a quaint, essentially Scandinavian object, represents Scandinavian heritage and tradition even today. Contemporary woodworkers like Dick Enstad and Robert Hoover still craft these bentwood boxes.