With over 20 kinds of nuts around the world, should squirrels and bears be the only ones enjoying them? Surely with opposable thumbs, humans could figure it out. And alas, the nutcracker was born!
Aawww, “Nuts” About History
Before creating tools for this purpose, early civilizations simply smashed nuts with a rock. So, the nutting stones of the Archaic period were the nut-lover’s first tool. The earliest known tools to crack nuts were made in the 3rd and 4th centuries B.C. Relatively primitive, they were designed in the shape of pliers and work the same way. Many were decorated or engraved.
By the 13th century, a new generation of nutcrackers surfaced, using an iron lever as part of its design. Numerous versions featured animals or animal heads. For example, you placed a nut in the dog’s mouth and push down its tail to force the jaw upward to crack the nut.
In the 14th and 15th centuries, small plier-style nutcrackers surfaced. Around this time, the term nutcracker was also used to categorize these products. Wooden nutcrackers caught on in Europe soon after. Carvers sculpted small figurines out of local wood. The nut-cracking function was accomplished by fastening two pieces of wood with a leather strap.
Then came screw nutcrackers, which resemble a pipe with a handle screwed into the bowl holding a nut. By twisting the screw, the nut was pushed against the side until it eventually cracked. Also popular in the 18th century were metal styles modeled like crocodiles, skeletons and the ever-popular ladies’ legs nicknamed Naughty Nellies.
A Little Nutty?
The beautiful handcrafted nutcrackers that evoke the Christmas feeling were created in the 17th century by miners in the Erzgebirge region of Germany. Carving the unique creations gave the men something to do during long evenings to supplement their income. Children received nutcrackers as Christmas presents, and a German legend says that having a nutcracker in the home brings good luck to everyone there.
Another popular legend is that the nutcracker owes its creation to the reward offered by a wealthy German who thought it took too much time to crack nuts. The winning design came from a village puppet maker who used a strong-jawed doll with a lever.
Many claim the nutcracker was initially crafted not to crack nut shells, but to mock incompetent politicians. The tops were in the shape of people, but any resemblance to real people was said to be coincidental. Nutcrackers’ mouths were used to crack nuts utilizing a lever or screw action. The saying a nut is hard to crack refers to bad politicians who never listened to the people they governed. And commoners took delight in the ruling class having to work for them, cracking their hard nuts of life.
Nutty About Nutcrackers
“The Nutcracker” ballet is set on a magical Christmas Eve when a Soldier Nutcracker comes to life and battles the King of the Mice. Peter Tchaikovsky created this famous work based on E.T.A. Hoffman’s story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” The ballet debuted in 1892, and the Christmas-themed production soon became a tradition.
However, nutcrackers were part of the Halloween tradition in parts of Britain and Scotland. They dubbed it Halloween Nutcrack Night, so it is a fitting mascot. Interestingly, World War II boosted nutcracker popularity when American soldiers stationed in West Germany purchased nutcrackers to send home as Christmas gifts.
Nuts About Nutcrackers
The largest nutcracker listed in the Guinness World Records Book was made in Germany in 2008 and stands 33 feet and one inch tall. The Leavenworth Washington Nutcracker Museum receives about 30,000 visitors each year. Visit the museum’s website for historical information and tips on collecting genuine antiques, as there are many reproductions. [nutcrackermuseum.com]
Collectors seek a variety of nutcrackers, but some search only for the mechanical type used for pecans. Pecan trees are native only to America and found throughout the South. Inventors strived to create the perfect pecan cracker and have patented many variations since the first U.S. patents in 1836.
According to the museum no other tool or collectible comes in as many designs and materials as the nutcracker. The museum displays more than 9,000 nutcrackers from over 50 countries.
And, in Luverne, Minnesota, the town proudly proclaims they have more nutcrackers (5,012) than residents (4,946)! Rock County History Center visitors view nutcrackers from seven inches to seven feet tall.
During the Depression of the 1930s, many families didn’t have money to purchase gifts. Instead, children found a sweet orange and some nuts in their Christmas stocking.
Once you’ve cracked a pile of nuts, you’re ready to prepare a favorite recipe, though most everyone buys nuts already out of the shells and even broken in small pieces. Nuts add a delectable flavor to many recipes, and nuts make wonderful [healthy] holiday gifts – plain, inside food or baked goods, or like one of these recipes.
Text and photos by Jo Clark
Our nutty freelance writer Jo Clark is probably eating macadamia nuts in Hawaii right now. Follow her escapades on Instagram @JoGoesEverywhere and on Facebook on Have Glass, Will Travel.