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For centuries people have known nuts are hard to crack, and have employed various creative methods for cracking the hard shells surrounding the nutritious, protein-packed morsel inside. The history of the nutcracker is a beautiful story of human creativity from function to creativity. Today, the traditional Christmas ornament nutcracker isn’t designed to actually crack a nut, and an entire ballet was created around this non nut-cracking figure. We have an entire category dedicated to nutcracker ornaments. Today we’ll examine the form, function and history of the iconic Christmas nutcracker. 

Most likely, the earliest nutcrackers were teeth. But, when the shells were too hard and too thick to crack the nut, modern excavations of ancient cities reveal rocks did the job. Scientists uncovered a base rock notched out to fit a nut to prevent it from shooting out the side on impact, and another rock used to strike the tough outer shell. It’s been learned from these early civilizations that people would camp out near the but trees as they began to drop the nuts, and they’d harvest the nuts for food, and use the kernels by grinding them into flour or nut butter. 

As technologies progressed, nut crackers became more advanced and mechanical. An ancient bronze nutcracker, even more elaborate than the hand-held metal tools you’d find at grandpa’s house, was discovered in Italy dating back to 200BC. The hand-held nutcracker tool developed and simplified, and doesn’t vary much from the functional nut-cracking tools we use today. There are many examples from the 13th-16th centuries of metal, spindle-legged tools used to crack the hard shells revealing the delicious nut inside. There are also early examples of a bit more creativity in nut cracking. The iron-poured variety, featuring various animals, became popular in Europe and the United States in the 19th century. Iron was a formidable material against the hard outer shell, and many times the nut crackers were designed to hold the nut in the mouth of the animal, and the mechanized handle brought leverage against the nut, and it didn’t stand a chance. 

The wooden nutcracker, similar to the iconic Christmas nutcrackers we recognize today, were carved from wood, and fitted with a metal hinge or leather strap to create its functionality. This carved, wooden variety became the creative answer to the metal, strictly functional variety also used. Over time, in the late 19th century, Gotthelf Friedrich Fuchtner, made the first nutcracker-like design, and used a lathe to recreate the same shape and design of his nutcrackers, and sold them as toys. It was Gotthelf’s descendent, Wilhelm, who tweaked the design to create the mechanized nutcracker we know today. The Fuchtner family still own and run their nutcracker workshop.

Simultaneously, with the rise of the German nutcracker the popularity of Russian ballet was also on the rise, and the ballet arose based on the fairy tale folk story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King by E.T.A Hoffman. This ballet tradition is still synonymous with Christmas, and every girl dreams of being Clara while visions of sugar plums dance in her head. Though every girl probably hopes her Christmas nutcracker does not turn into a full-grown dancing man, the Christmas nutcracker is an iconic Christmas image with a rich, nut-cracking history. 

May 10, 2022 by Rachael Mitchell

Written by

Rachael Mitchell

Rachael Mitchell is a freelance writer based in Seattle, Washington, and has over 15 years of writing experience. She’d never be able to pick just one favorite ornament, but narrowed it down to the S’more and Tennis Ball. She always looks forward to s’mores in the summer with friends and family adding gourmet ingredients, and played 4 years of college tennis in the mid-west.

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