Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Grandma's Silk Scarf Had Meaning

In today's world, our individual belongings become increasingly depersonalized as we rapidly acquire lots of "stuff" due to availability and affordability. I think our ancestors treasured the things they owned far more than we are capable of. They scrimped and saved and watched every penny, and when they were finally ready to purchase something, they had only a few choices of color and style, if any. With our cheap and rapid 21st century manufacturing, consumers have learned to desire more and more, but the tremendous variety and availability seems increasingly unsastisfying. For example, if you offered someone a dish of the fanciest, most delectable gourmet ice cream in the world, how much would that person enjoy it if already full-up (to the ears) on plain vanilla?

Let's go back 150 years, to rural Norway. If every penny came through an entire family's back-breaking labor, by toiling every minute of every day, then how often do you think that family would buy anything? Easy answer: not often. So, when purchases were made and gifted, they were gifted with a tremendous amount of forethought and importance, like the fringed silk scarves given to my female Norwegian ancestors.

Thibertine Johnson, ca. 1870s

I have precious few likenesses of my ancestors who actually made the ship voyage from Norway to North America. This image comes from a somewhat damaged tin type photograph of Thibertine (Bertina) Johnson Winje, my great great grandmother. According to events in her life and the nature of the tin type, I am estimating the photograph was taken in about 1875.

The close-fitting jacket Bertina wears is a little different from most Norwegian immigrant women's clothing I have seen of that period, mostly because it is light in color, but there is also unusual smocking around the cuffs and hem of the jacket. A brooch holds her collar together, which is an expected fashion of the day. But, what really catches my attention in this photograph, and in several others of Bertina as a young woman, is the dark, fringed scarf worn about her neck. It was obviously a belonging that held a special meaning for Bertina, since she made a point of including it her attire on several photographic occasions.

Silk neck scarves, especially fringed ones, became a part of regional, ethnic Norwegian folk dress, called bunad. But, one has to wonder why, since Norway did not produce its own silk, and so, the scarves had to come from elsewhere.

Bertina was probably given her silk scarf in honor of a special occasion while still living in Norway. Most likely, it was given at the time of her confirmation in the Lutheran Church. Religious confirmation at about age 14 had certain connotations in Norwegian society. For one thing, a confirmed individual was considered an adult in the eyes of the church, and in general society. The main reason 19th century Norwegian children attended school was to ensure they could complete religious confirmation. During Bertina's youth, without confirmation in a state church of Norway, an individual could not be considered of good moral character, and by law, he or she could not get any kind of public license, hold a public office, or get the protection of the law. [1] [2]

Silk scarves became the most widely used luxury item in 19th century Norwegian attire, and were adopted as a part of many regional folk costumes. It is thought that 18th century French fashion was responsible for the trend. Both men and women in France wore neckerchiefs in the 1700s, and it became so that no one was considered properly dressed without a scarf around the neck. Over time, the fashion spread, including to Norway and ordinary farm folk. Merchants and peddlers from Sweden served as the main supplier of imported silk scarves to Norway during the 1900s. [3]

And so it seems that my ancestor, Bertina, treasured her silk scarf not only as a special gift from a loved one, but as a badge of honor. Though the scarf had been created in a distant, exotic location, it held significance regarding her ethnicity, and was associated with certain rights of passage. Bertina wore her silk scarf on many special occasions in America, and since it had been gifted through tradition and the labor of her elders back in Norway, it served as a constant reminder of her homeland and her culture.

[1] Fringed silk neck scarves as treasured heirlooms in Norwegian folk costume are discussed in: Marion John Nelson. Material Culture and People’s Art Among the Norwegians in America (Northfield, Minnesota: The Norwegian-American Historical Association, 1994), 133-34.

[2] Nineteenth century Norwegian schooling and religious practices are discussed in: Ann Urness Gesme, Between Rocks and Hard Places (Gesme Enterprises: Cedar Rapids, IA.), 1992.

Husfliden: "Silk scarves for traditional folk costumes and bunads."


  1. Chery, I enjoyed reading this article so very much. Thanks for sharing your great-great-grandmother and her scarf.

  2. What a wonderful post - i really enjoyed reading this. And that is a beautiful photo to have of you gg grandmother - what a treasure.