Why do Swedes care so much about butter knives?

Why do Swedes care so much about butter knives?
What is it about the 'smörkniv' that so captures the Swedish imagination? Photo: Leif R Jansson/TT
Have you ever wondered what's behind the Swedish fondness for the wooden butter knife?

Almost every Swedish households will have several of these in their cutlery drawer, and if you go to a souvenir shop you’re bound to see plenty of them, perhaps with an elk or Viking decoration carved into the handle.

Dairy in general, including butter, plays a big part in the Swedish diet – although it only became really accessible to the majority after the Second World War – so the knife is often used to spread butter or Bregott (an oil-based spread) on crisp bread (knäckebröd) or open sandwiches (smörgåsar).

The Swedish butter knife (smörkniv) doesn’t have a blade but is rounded for ease of spreading. So what is it that makes them such a beloved symbol of Swedish culture?

When I asked about the butter knife on Twitter, it was clear a lot of people have strong opinions. Some said that the use of wood rather than metal made it distinctly Swedish, and that it did the job better than other materials.

People from nearby countries, namely Finland, Norway and Estonia, jumped in to say they also have wooden butter knives – and that one reason they’re so close to people’s hearts is that it’s a typical early woodwork or handicraft project in schools. 

Others agreed with me that the Swedes can’t claim the butter knife as unique.

But maybe it’s not the shape or material of the knife that makes it so Swedish, but rather the way it’s used. The Local columnist Richard Orange argued that the Swedishness of the butter knife is the way one knife is used by everyone at the table (and that people who keep it on their plate are committing a huge faux pas). In that way, it shows the value placed on collectivism in Sweden.

Either way, it’s not the only dairy utensil that there’s a Nordic complex over.

Swedes can be equally protective of their cheese cutters (osthyvel), a tool for getting thin, even slices of cheese, and woe betide the person who uses them incorrectly, leaving a “ski slope” (skidbacke) in the cheese. Watch the video below to see what I’m talking about:


Member comments

  1. Let’s hear what you think! Is there something special about the Swedish smörkniv, or maybe another seemingly mundane item that sums up Sweden to you?

  2. Aren’t many things found in Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England, probably including wooden butter knives, of Swedish origin, delivered or left behind by harbor raiders and inland invaders, I.e. “Vikings”?

  3. This article was great! Butter knives can be found in all cultures, but I think the Scandinavians have made the butter knife an essential kitchen utensil. So much so that they can not think of using anything else with which to spread their butter. As an immigrant to Sweden, I was fascinated with this and so I started to make butter knives, but with my own design and style. I make mine in porcelain and decorate them with various fun designs under different names for each range because butter knives do not have to be boring 🙂

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