Story of the Nutcracker

Finding tools for opening or removing the shells of nuts challenged our earliest ancestors. Ancient excavations exposed nutshell fragments and it is thought those nuts were broken by stones. Later tools were made specifically for the task of cracking the hard shells of nuts.

The earliest nutcrackers were simple and functional, but eventually, beautifully crafted brass and even carved characters emerged as an art form in the 15th and 16th centuries. Many carved characters took on the image of birds, animals and human forms. When a nut was placed in the "mouth" of dolls, levers or screws on the back could be worked to push the lower jaw up against the upper jaw to crush the nut. The nutcracker story began with the creation of European nutcrackers in Switzerland, France, Germany, and England during the 16th and 17th centuries.

In the German regions of Sonneberg and Erzgebirge, near the Bohemian border, the Ore mountains were rich with mineral deposits. Many villagers worked in mines, but wood carved during the winter until they could return to work. Life was tough for many people who worked long hours as miners and endured hardships and poverty. Often the miners watched as the fruits of their labor were taken by their superiors. The dolls were cleverly designed to resemble powerful people like kings, policemen, and soldiers. The townspeople enjoyed the caricatures of their rulers, because they were placed at their service to perform the lowly task of cracking nuts. When mineral deposits expired, miners began to make wood carvings the dolls all year. Eventually, these one-of-a-kind standing soldiers and kings became a symbol of the region and were sold all over Europe. Nutcracker pictures of the period recorded these early wood creations. A holiday table setting was not complete without a bowl of holiday nuts and a handsome doll standing beside it!

The combination of a useful tool and a figural form with a human appearance was well accepted by the mid-18th century. In the toy making center of Sonneberg in the Thuringian Forest there was a reference mentioned in 1735 of "nut-biters" that operated according to the principles of leverage. These nut-biters were described as sturdy, energetic forms with large heads and two moving arms. The body holds a long handled lower jaw that allows the jaw to push the nut against the upper jaw to crack it. In a carnival parade in 1783, students from Freisingen, Germany presented large models of Berchtesgaden wares, including a nut-biter in the form of a little man whose mouth and stomach were one and the same. Select the following link to view our Christmas nutcracker decorations.

It is in the 18th century Sonneberg and Erzgebirge regions of Germany that the term "nussknacker" appeared in the first dictionary of "High German" by the Brothers Grimm (the dictionary was begun in the 1830s), and is described as "often in form of a misshaped little man, in whose mouth the nut, by means of a lever or screw, is cracked open." Many different authority characterizations--monks, police, not-so-popular political leaders, even Napoleon--were created to amuse people, but the popular king and soldier figures undoubtedly inspired the famous 1816 nutcracker story publication of E.T.A. Hoffmann's fairy tale "Nussknacker und Mausekönig." Hoffmann wrote a story of Marie's prince nutcracker.

Thirty-five years after the publication of E.T.A. Hoffmann's classic story, it reappeared as a central character in Heinrich Hoffmann's story "King Nutcracker and the Poor Reinhold" (1851). In this version the poor Reinhold becomes acquainted with the King in a dream.

The early story did not always portray the characters in a role of the good-hearted fairy tale king. More often they wore a monk's robe or was made into the form of a mean-looking policeman, a Turk, master of the watch, a cavalry man or some other grotesque helmeted figure with a long nose. They appeared, for example, as a caricature of Napoleon on a 1813 Parisian nutcracker picture sheet. By the end of the 19th century their pictures appeared almost consistently in the catalogs of the toy wholesalers as a representative of the contemporary authorities. What started out as a practical tool often ended up as an expression of light irony and a social critique by the common people. Select the following link to view our village nutcracker dolls.

It should be noted that any one of these characters is a result of carefully planned production. Each character is created from "living" wood and may take up to three or four years to produce with over 100 separate procedures. Craftsmen with years of experience must devote their efforts to several steps in the process. Hand carving is still seen on modern figures, with native craftsmen and their families using centuries-old techniques to create the stunning results now available.

Nutcrackers were especially popular with Germans who coined the phrase, “Gott gibt die Nü sse aber knaker mü ss man sie selbst (God gives the nuts but we have to crack them ourselves)”. This story was intended to teach children that life was hard but rewarding. This little verse made it a favorite toy, possibly because it enabled children to reach one of life’s rewards more easily.

According to German folklore, they were given as keepsakes to bring good luck to your family and protect your home. The legend says that they represents power and strength and serves like a trusty watch dog guarding your family from evil spirits and danger. A fierce protector, they bare their teeth to the evil spirits and serves as the traditional messenger of good luck and goodwill. Select the following link to view our wooden nutcracker ornaments.

Although these characters have been around for ages, they were not always the collectible items as we know them today. In fact they only became popular in the United States about 50 years ago. The practice of collecting in the United States began in the early 1950’s. Many of the American soldiers who were in Germany during World War II visited open air fairs or markets. It was there that they discovered their sturdy and intriguing companion. When the soldiers returned home after the war, a new comrade came with them. Strengthened by the ability to ward off evil from its owners, the soldiers brought a figure of power and protection to their families and loved ones. And so with their rich heritage had arrived in the United States, and they were here to stay.

When Tchaikowsky’s ballet, ‘The Nutcracker Suite’ that premiered in St. Petersburg in 1892, became popular in the United States in the early 1950’s and ignited the passion for these fascinating creatures. The magic and mystery of the ballet has intrigued and enchanted audiences year after year. The strong following of this classic production greatly increased their collecting popularity in America.

This famous play began life in 1816 written by the German writer E.T.A. Hoffman. The play was entitled “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” and it was a tale of an unhappy girl named Marie whose only love is a nutcracker doll.

The play was adapted in 1845 by famed French novelist Alexandre Dumas, who made the play more suitable for children. In 1891 the cheerier version of the ballet was chosen as the basis of a Russian ballet to be scored by Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and choreographed by Marius Petitpa and Lev Ivanov. Select the following link to view the wooden nutcracker soldier.

The ballet opened in St. Petersburg on December 17, 1892. The ballet is the tale of a girl named Clara who is given a nutcracker doll for Christmas by her godfather, Drosselmaier. That night she falls asleep and is disturbed by an attack of mice led by the Mouse King, who wishes to take her away to his kingdom. She is rescued by soldiers of the Nutcracker who, as a prince, takes her to his land, a country full of sugarplums and waltzing flowers. She awakens the next morning with only the doll and memories of her Christmas adventure.

The original production was not an overwhelming success. Though popular in Russia it was never staged outside of that country until 1934, when it appeared in London. Since then numerous versions have been created, with the most successful being that by George Balanchine performed in 1954. The ballet is probably the world’s favorite ballet, being seen by millions each year, especially during the Christmas season.

One curious consequence of the ballets popularity has been to stimulate interest in the collection of history nutcrackers. Though many types of metal and wooden characters were made through the centuries, the commercial production of the popular toy dates only from the 1870s in Germany. The Leavenworth Nutcracker Museum in Washington State exhibits over 3,000 characters from around the world.

"The Nutcracker" is a fairy tale about a young girl, Clara, and a very unusual Christmas. Herr Drosselmeyer, the family friend, is a magical, mysterious character who attends the family Christmas party, bringing Clara a special gift -- a beautiful Nutcracker doll. Very excited about the new doll, Clara wants to stay up all night with it, but her family sends her off to bed. After everyone has left the party and her family is sound asleep, Clara sneaks back downstairs to look at her new Nutcracker doll. She falls asleep and begins to dream.

She is suddenly awakened by a roomful of mice led by a frightening Mouse King that tries to kidnap her and take her to his kingdom. Clara searches for her Nutcracker, but he has disappeared. Suddenly, the Christmas tree begins to grow to an enormous height. Everything in the room is out of proportion. The Nutcracker appears with a band of soldiers. They have come to save Clara from the Mouse King. A battle ensues. The soldiers and the mice fight a vicious battle, and when the Mouse King threatens the Nutcracker, Clara throws her shoe at the Mouse King. Distracted, he is finally defeated by the Nutcracker.

The Nutcracker Prince appears to take her away to his palace. They travel through the enchanted land of the Snowflakes to the land of the Sweets. Here, they meet delights from around the world. They are entranced by the Sugar Plum Fairy and the beautiful waltzing flowers. Clara never wants to leave the Prince or the enchanted land, but she awakens from her fascinating dream to find herself under the Christmas tree with her family and friends around her. She still has the Nutcracker Doll to help her remember her wonderful, magical Christmas.