For years, my 92 year old father collected wooden nutcrackers. He amassed a colorful collection of figural nutcrackers mainly from America, Italy, and Germany. They were fun to collect and attractive to display. My dad displayed his collection of nutcrackers from the mid-1900s to the present in his home, year round. He, like many of his generation, enjoyed nuts and believed that the figures brought good luck. To those of us who knew him, it made perfect sense that my dad would collect nutcrackers. Like the sentinel or guard figure nutcrackers, my dad is the kind of guy who, if you needed someone to protect you, would be a very good choice.
An Italian bronze nutcracker dating back to the 4th century B.C. is one of the earliest ones known. And, history teaches us that Anne Boleyn received a nutcracker as a gift from King Henry VIII, too. Nutcrackers are found in many cultures spanning the globe and famous nutcrackers and nutcracker collectors sparked an interest in the history of cracking the nut.
Nutcrackers use one of three basic methods to free a nut from its shell: percussion, lever or screw. The materials used to make nutcrackers run the gamut: stones, wood, metal. For instance, nutting stones were found in North America and parts of northern Europe about 5,000 to 8,000 years ago. A nut would be placed in the depression of a stone and then smashed with another stone (called the hammer stone) to reveal the nut inside the shell.
Shown is a nutcracker collection, circa 1950s-90s.
Some nutcrackers are simply bowls with a central depressed area where the nut is placed and a matching hammer is used to smash.
Some nutcrackers are carved from conifer (pine, cedar, spruce, etc.) and deciduous (linden, beech, ash, oak, boxwood, etc.) trees. Wooden screw type nutcrackers were introduced in the 17th century where the nut sat in an open cavity of the cracker and the screw came down on the nut the amount of force cracked the nut.
Some early nutcrackers work using metal hinges or levers. For instance, a lever-forced nutcracker worked with the nut placed in the mouth of a cast metal figure like a dog, alligator, or wolf. Some have the nut positioned in the belly of a carved nutcracker figure. The belly nutcracker prevents damage to the decorated face of the nutcracker from use. Some nutcrackers are free-standing with a lever at the back and some have elongated noses to create a lever for cracking.
Big names in nutcrackers
Italy's Groden Valley was the famous site for the creation of figural nutcrackers, made of pine and polychrome paint dating back to the 1700s. In northern Italy, carvers produced lever nutcrackers with artisan, Anton Riffeser who established the Anri firm in the 1920s. Germany's Erzgebirge (Ore Mountain region) percussion nutcrackers are popular with collectors for their tall hats and brightly colored costumes. Carvers from Norway, Denmark and Sweden produce highly recognizable nutcracker figures of fishermen, street sellers and sea farers. The German makers, Otto Ulbricht and the Steinbach firm were known for nutcrackers with fanciful accessories. Some nutcrackers like the are specifically used at holiday time as evinced by their forms: reindeer, Santa Claus or characters from "The Nutcracker"?ballet.
Ivory was once used for nutcrackers but the material could not withstand the force from repeated use. Porcelain nutcrackers were used in high style China table settings. A famous porcelain screw nutcracker by Meissen had a brass wheel at the top that crushed down on the nut and matched the China pattern.
Once the nuts were cracked, metal nut picks became necessary. Other accessories include nut bowls, fruit and nut serving spoons, nut openers used to pry open cracked nuts, and fruit knives which were small scale pocket knives used in the eating of fruits and nuts at the end of a meal. The ever popular nut bowls often came in pairs - one bowl was used for the nuts and the other held the shells after cracking.
Nutcracker sets, which included a pair of nutcrackers and assorted nut picks, was the brain child of a 19th century dentist, Henry Quackenbush, who started out making dental tools and then found fame in nuts.
From soup to nuts, the varied shaped nutcracker is a very popular collectible.
Ph.D. antiques appraiser, author, and award-winning TV personality, Dr. Lori presents appraisal events to audiences worldwide.