By Dr. Marlysue Holmquist, former Chair of Bethany Department of Education
Bethany College began a resurgence and renewal in March of Swedish craft work with the introduction of a program for students in ceramics and broom making. The development of skills that will utilize student talent and the development of a market for the hand work, hearkens back to an earlier time at Bethany College when the hiring of a teacher of Sloyd by the board of directors of Bethany was an innovation in the art department!
A chance remark at coffee one afternoon about a Sloyd program at Bethany College led to a search of Bethany catalogs for information about this unique program. This was a program I’d never heard of at Bethany. A year later with the acquisition of a “carved” table at an auction in Lindsborg, the information about this unique handwork program at Bethany, and the woman who was brought here to begin this new endeavor for Bethany College, began to come together.
An auction advertisement for Lindsborg residents, Elizabeth and Einar Jaderborg included many interesting items. I attended the auction and bid on a few smaller items, but it was a carved table under a tree which intrigued me the most. The entirety of the table was carved, including the top, legs, and a shelf at the bottom. I bid and won the table. An examination at home revealed snakes, a Luther rose, and dragons, and under the lip of the table, the initials AR. Who was AR, the artist who had carved this entire table? A conversation with Eddy Jaderborg, asking about the history of the table gave me the artist’s name, and a letter to Elizabeth Jaderborg corroborated the information. The table was linked to the Sloyd program at Bethany!
The library table belonged to Einar Jaderborg’s parents. Einar’s mother used the table for many years in her apartment over Swedish Crafts after she purchased it from Alma Swensson, wife of Dr. Carl Aaron Swensson, president of Bethany College. Mrs. Swensson sold her belongings from her home, mostly to friends, after the death of Dr. Swensson in 1904. The table initially was given to Carl Aaron and Alma Swensson by Amalia Rabenius, who was an Instructor in Sloyd, Pyrography, and Embroidery at Bethany College. It was not a carved table, but was embellished using the technique of pyrography, or woodburning. She was the artist with the initials AR.
Amalia Maria Rabenius immigrated to the United States in 1898 with her brother, Karl Rabenius, who later became a Lutheran pastor in Pontiac, Rhode Island. Miss Rabenius was hired in 1900 to begin a Sloyd program in the art department at Bethany College. The early Bethany catalogs show that she was Lady Principal and Instructor in Sloyd, Pyrography and Embroidery.
The word Sloyd, also spelled Slojd , is an English translation of the Scandinavian word Slog which means skilled hand work. Sloyd refers to the making of useful objects for daily use in the home, including weaving, clothing, kitchen and eating utensils, decorative items, and tools, including farm implements. The skills of woodcarving, basket making, weaving and metal working were taught at home in Sweden. Many of these skills were brought to the Smoky Valley in the 1860’s and were useful to the early immigrants as they were unable to bring everything they needed due to the limitations in space in the trunks they brought on the ships. They used the tools they were able to bring with them to make what was needed for life on the prairie. The term hemslojd was usually used to describe traditional crafts made in the home, while Sloyd indicated more skill had been learned and the projects were more difficult.
No records exist about why the decision was made to bring a Sloyd teacher to Bethany College from Sweden. It was a program of study, and philosophy of teaching, that was fairly new in Sweden so it may have been that the newest teacher hired for Bethany in 1899, Birger Sandzen, or art department members, Carl Lotove and G.N. Malm, all schooled in Sweden, brought knowledge of this new endeavor and made the suggestion. But, that is only speculation. When Ms. Rabenius was hired, she began her work in the Art Department in fall of 1900. Bethany catalog of 1901:
“The Sloyd Department is a special feature at Bethany College, and has been added as a recognition of manual training, or properly speaking, monumental training as an educational factor. The growing importance and interest in this work attests its value, and it’s success as an educational means is no longer a matter of question. Education has to perform the function of guiding inherent self-activity and of giving an harmonious and symmetrical development to the body, intellect, and will. Sloyd is justly acquiring a place in our educational system, since it is so effective an instrument in bringing about such a development. Sloyd aims to train the hand in precision, dexterity, and skill, and by so doing strengthen the character and moral nature. It is on account of it’s reactionary effect upon character that it may be called monumental training. The inherent tendency to activity, physical and mental, is taken advantage of, guided and directed.
Sloyd is of inestimable value in giving manual dexterity, in cultivating a spirit of self-reliance, habits of accuracy, patience, and care, and in training to habits of attention and observation It should not be conceived of as a branch of technical education for it trains for no specific trade or profession. Sloyd may give mechanical skill, and as such may be a preparation for some special vocation in life, but the primary end in view is always that of character building, and all means and methods are adjusted to that end. Sloyd, as such, belongs purely to a general and liberal education. The Department is well supplied with the tools and apparatus necessary for the work. Courses are given in free-hand whittling, joinery, turning, and pattern-making, pyrography, and art needle work.
The department is in charge of a thorough and experienced instructor, trained in the famous Sloyd insitutes of Sweden. To the students of the Model School, Sloyd is obligatory.”
Amalia Maria Rabenius was born in Kaleby, Sweden in 1868. She attended the teacher’s college at Nääs in 1897, where all teachers were required to learn Sloyd methods. Nääs, a former palace, surrounded on three sides by a lake, was opened in the 1870’s, by Otto Saloman, with financial backing of his uncle, August Abrahamson. Nääs was known as the “School of Sloyd.” The curriculum of Sloyd was an answer to several economic needs in Sweden. Those needs included the ability to construct useful tools required in the home; a way of subsidizing the family income; an encouragement for people to remain living in rural areas and as a method of reviving the traditional handicrafts.
Nääs became the center of an international movement in Sloyd that was designed to break down distinctions, or class barriers, in Sweden through classes in hand work and crafts. Students from around the world traveled to Sweden for instruction through the generosity of Abrahamson. They paid only for their transportation to the school. This generous offer to students from Europe, North America, Japan, India, Cuba and South America, ensured the Sloyd philosophy spread to schools around the globe. Otto Salomon kept in contact with the teachers who attended Nääs and it became a missionary-like movement to establish educational Sloyd around the world. Salomon received invitations to the U.S. to speak on the Sloyd system, including one from the School of Education of the University of Chicago to give “a series of lectures on Sloyd.” This invitation was encouraged by noted educational philosopher, John Dewey, who requested that Salomon visit America so the program could be implemented at the University of Chicago.
When Amalia Rabenius arrived at Bethany College in 1900 to teach methods of Sloyd she was one of many students from Nääs who took their skills to other countries as teachers to help further the work in Sloyd she’d learned in Sweden. There were a number of Sloyd programs that began across the U.S. around the same time the program was implemented at Bethany College. The most notable were in Boston at the North Bennett Street School, Santa Barbara, California and Los Angeles public schools. Interestingly, one of the notable Sloyd teachers was Anna Ernberg who began the weaving program at Berea College in Berea, Kentucky, ( the alma mater of President Will Jones ) a long-time respected program that is still in existence.
In addition to her teaching schedule in Sloyd, Amalia Rabenius was also the “Principal” in Lane Hart Hall. In the early years at Bethany there was an emphasis on music and fine arts. Although there are no minutes available to give the reason for the expansion of the art department to include Sloyd, one can speculate that since the art department in 1900 included courses in painting, drawing and art history, which were taught by Birger Sandzen, the addition of Sloyd would broaden the offerings of the department, especially for students in the Model School.
There were several “departments” at Bethany Academy and the Model School was one of them. Ruth Bildt explains in her book, “Pioneer Swedish-American Culture in Central Kansas”, that the Model School, which began in 1886, was created to teach children at a high school level the regular school subjects as well as Swedish language and Bible studies. Most children attended for 7 years and then were admitted to the Bethany Academy. The following departments were part of the structure of the school in 1891: Collegiate, Preparatory, Normal School, Conservatory of Music, Commercial, Model School and Art. The original Bethany Academy, established in 1881 at Bethany Lutheran Church, was renamed Bethany Normal Institute in 1886. In 1887 the name changed to Bethany College and Normal Institute. In 1889 the name was again changed and the institution became Bethany College.
In 1900 the art department listed 15 students, but remarkably there were 60 students in the Sloyd and Pyrography department.
Pyrography or pyrogravure is the art of decorating wood or other materials with burn marks using a heated object such as a poker. It is also known as pokerwork or wood burning and often has paper patterns that are used for the designs. The Sloyd program also included free-hand whittling, joinery, turning, and pattern-making, pyrography, and art needle work.
The class list of students in Ms. Rabenius’ courses for Sloyd and Pyrography and Art Needle Work included a number of well-known Lindsborg names such as Anderson, Bengston, Grondal, Gunnerson, Rosberg, Swensson and Thorstenberg. And, notably on her class list was Birger Sandzen!
The Sandzen gallery own a number of pieces of furniture decorated by Birger Sandzen using pyrography techniques. The collection includes tables, cabinets, benches and chairs and an interesting game table.
The handwork legacy at Bethany was continued by Lydia Sohlberg Deere who taught various types of handwork at the Bethany Academy in 1907-1909 after Rabenius left Bethany College. Deere founded the Föreningen för Skandenaviska Handarbeten in 1927, which translates to the Society for Scandinavian Handwork and later became the Lindsborg Swedish Club.
Miss Rabenius was a good friend to Minna and Hagbard Brase. Dr. Brase was a professor at Bethany and director of the Bethany College Oratorio Society and a colleague to Ms. Rabenius. So, it was natural that Amalia would be asked to accompany Minna Hernwall to America when Minna left Sweden in 1901 to come to Lindsborg to marry Hagbard Brase. Minna and Amalia remained good friends and enjoyed making handwork together, especially weaving and embroidery. Mrs. Brase was recognized for her handcrafts, including weaving, bobbin lace, painting and needlepoint. She became a member of the Lindsborg Swedish Club, continuing the handcraft work in Lindsborg.
Amalia Rabenius left Bethany College and Lindsborg in 1907. She accepted a position as Superintendent of the Orphan’s Home of the New York Lutheran Conference at Avon, Massachusetts. This brought her closer to her brother, Pastor Karl Rabenius and his family in Pontiac, Rhode Island. She died in 1954 at the age of 86.
Amalia Rabenius’ teaching, and development of handwork, pyrography and crafts in the Bethany College Sloyd program, left a lasting legacy in the Smoky Valley. As Elizabeth Jaderborg noted in her book, “Why Lindsborg?”, Lindsborg has been a “haven for artists, both craftsmen and painters” for a long time. The respect for the arts, crafts and folklife that is a central part of Lindsborg’s identity, is unique. The foresight of several Lindsborg people in preserving the arts and crafts of the Smoky Valley and chronicling the knowledge and the history, has produced a distinctive environment for our small Kansas town. And now this reappearance of Sloyd-type crafts of pottery and broom making in Lindsborg continues the long-time tradition of respect for the beauty of handmade objects made with the skill and hard work of Bethany students.