Malcolm Esping - Kansas Folk Art
Swedish Crown Making
Marlysue Holmquist, Apprentice
In the predominately Swedish community of Lindsborg, Malcolm Esping is considered a cultural treasure. It is through his efforts that many of the town's traditions have survived. Originally a farmer by trade, Malcolm is known for his many talents, among them blacksmithing and silversmithing.
Malcolm was born in Saline County in 1914. His family was from Sweden where they were involved with metalwork for several generations. According to Malcolm, his grandfather and great-grandfather had been blacksmiths in Sweden and had made chains for the Swedish navy.
Several of the Espings immigrated to Kansas in the 1850s. Malcolm's grandfather and great-grandfather came to work for the Union Pacific Railroad. Eventually his grandfather bought a farm east of Lindsborg. There he set up a blacksmith shop and did a good deal of work for the neighbors. Although Malcolm's father was familiar with the family business of blacksmithing, he went on to learn another trade. Malcolm, on the other hand, found himself very interested in the art of blacksmithing.
All of this just came naturally to me. I know when I was just a little kid I was interested in it. Whenever I'd get to town I'd go find an old blacksmith shop and watch them beat and pound on iron and things like that. It just fascinated me. I guess it is in my blood.—Malcolm Esping
As an adult Malcolm set up his own blacksmith shop on the farm where he lived about 11 miles northeast of Lindsborg. He met a retired blacksmith who generously passed on all of his equipment to Malcolm. Like his grandfather before him, he began to do work for the neighbors.
My father taught me how to weld—forge welding—which is extremely hard to do. But I became very good at that. Then I made some wrought iron things, because I love to take old scrap iron that was useless out of the scrap pile and turn it into—bend it around, twist it around, and make it into something useful or ornamental.—Malcolm Esping
Malcolm worked at his blacksmithing while he farmed. An unfortunate accident caused him to quit farming for health reasons. When he left the farm he moved to Lindsborg. As Malcolm explains, "I didn't like to stand around and look at the walls." After moving to town Malcolm continued with his metalwork, in particular wrought iron work. He worked on projects for churches, businesses, and private homes. Since his health was not as good as it had once been, Malcolm switched from working with iron to working with copper and brass as these metals are not as physically demanding to work with. From there he moved into working with pewter, silver, and gold. Eventually Malcolm began using his skills to make wedding crowns.
The tradition of wedding crowns is hundreds of years old in Sweden. The crown was worn by the bride during the wedding ceremony. If the family was wealthy, the crown was owned by the family. Generally, however, the crown was owned by the church and was lent to the bride. The crowns were at times referred to as "virgin crowns" because the bride was only allowed to wear the crown after declaring to her clergy that she was chaste. Over the years the crowns have changed. They can now be found in jewelry stores and are at times much smaller than the original ones. They may be made out of silver, gold, or lace.
When Malcolm first saw one of the more modern wedding crowns he was not impressed. "I figured I could make a better one," he recalls. The first one he saw was from Sweden and had been cast. With his traditional knowledge and a little bit of experimentation, Malcolm began creating custom wedding crowns.
Malcolm's crowns are lighter and airier than those you find in Sweden. He designs for Swedish American women who are combining Old World traditions with those of their homeland of birth. He feels the more delicate crowns are more appropriate for the wedding customs and attire found in Kansas.
Malcolm does not remember how many wedding crowns he has produced over the last several decades but he believes it to be in the hundreds. He knows that he has been doing it long enough that he now sees women getting married in crowns he made for their mothers. The tradition of wearing the crowns has remained strong in Lindsborg. His clientele, however, reaches beyond central Kansas. He has sent crowns to other states such as Montana and Minnesota, as well as to such far away places as Sweden, Canada, and South America. He knows of one crown he made that is now in California and has been used in 11 weddings. Malcolm comments, "It sort of gives you a sense of satisfaction to know that something you produced has been handed down and will be handed down from generation to generation."
To Malcolm the crowns are very special. He goes to great lengths to personalize each and every crown. He likes to encourage customers to incorporate special gem stones or family jewelry into the design of the crown.
I make them not just as a wedding crown but as a family heirloom. That is why I ask them to bring in something that will tie that crown to their family ancestors—something that will tie the whole group together.—Malcolm Esping
In 1987 Malcolm first participated in the Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program as a master artist. His apprentices have included Marlysue Holmquist and Mardel Esping. Marlysue apprenticed with Malcolm in 1987.
Marlysue was born in Kansas but spent much of her childhood in California. However, most of the members of her family eventually moved back to Kansas. As she explains, "We have real strong roots in Lindsborg." Today she lives in neighboring Smolan with her husband and two small children.
While Marlysue was living in California she was aware of the wedding crown tradition in Lindsborg. On a trip back to Kansas when she was a child she saw Malcolm making wedding crowns. When Marlysue was to be married her mother purchased one of the crowns for her to wear in her wedding. As an adult Marlysue developed an interest in jewelry making and from there became interested in the production of wedding crowns.
Although Malcolm has had several apprentices over the past 20 years, Marlysue was the first person to serve an apprenticeship with Malcolm strictly in the area of crown making. His past apprentices, who had been students at Bethany College, worked in the area of jewelry making. Malcolm thinks it takes a special apprentice to work with the crowns.
You have to have a love of design, traditions, and legends. . . . The legends, traditions—that's what I want to see kept alive. Anyone can learn how to weld, do silversmithing, and combine pieces and so on. It's the story!—Malcolm Esping
Both of his apprentices under the Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program are of Swedish decent. Malcolm thinks that helps them to understand the stories and the traditions.
Malcolm can complete a crown in a couple of days but it took Marlysue months to complete a crown under the apprenticeship. During the apprenticeship period she was able to create two crowns. However, she is confident that in time she will be able to work much faster. No matter how long it takes to create the structure of the crown it will not be completed until it is purchased. According to Marlysue, "The bride needs to determine how she wants it finished so that it really is hers." In the past Malcolm has done such things as take the bride's grandparents' wedding rings and weld them together in an interlocking ring, which was then hung at the pendant point of the crown.
Malcolm has a great deal to teach his apprentices. He warns them not to expect to do everything perfectly as he himself continues to make mistakes. He claims, "I made a lot of mistakes but then I finally got a little smarter and figured out a little easier and better way of doing some of the things myself." The first thing he tells an apprentice is that anyone can make a mistake. "But if you can't rectify it," he explains, "then you're in bad shape."
Malcolm also teaches the stories. The stories are not just about crown making or metalwork. According to Marlysue this was one of the best parts of the apprenticeship.
I'd come in and he'd sit down and I'd begin working and sometimes he'd talk me through the work and other times he'd just talk and relate. It was like I could pick his brain for information, not only for crowns and metalworking, but about the history of Lindsborg, the history of Smolan, the history of my family—you name it and we've talked about it. It has been great, really great.—Marlysue Holmquist
From Kansas Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program © KSHS 1989
Entry: Esping, Malcolm - Kansas Folk Art
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: February 2011
Date Modified: May 2012
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.