The Suite Charm of Antique Nutcrackers

By Daniele Gair
Posted December 2011

Well into the 21st century, when shopping for the holidays means standing in line for the latest TV, video game console or battery-powered “pet,” the nutcracker remains the quintessential Christmas toy. But far from being simply decorative holiday items, nutcrackers were once an essential part of life and have exhibited a fascinating combination of form and function for thousands of years. And for many, the tall wooden soldier so beloved by little Clara in Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet has transformed not into a handsome prince, but into princely collections.

As nuts have been a staple in the human diet for millennia, it makes sense that one of the fi rst tools developed involved cracking them open. When one’s molars or fi ngers couldn’t do the job, prehistoric man and woman used stones. Excavations all over the world, from the Middle East and Northern Europe to the southern United States, have all yielded nut-cracking stones. These were usually large, fl at stones on which the nuts would be set, found with smaller stones that would have been used for crushing. The larger stones sometimes even had small, nut-sized indentions on their surfaces, perfect for holding the walnut or pecan steady.

Of course, man’s tools got cleverer and more sophisticated as he did, and nutcrackers evolved from simple crushers to instruments that removed the fl esh from the shell with minimal damage to the nut itself. Over the centuries, several types of nutcrackers were developed to do the job. These include: the percussion cracker, which would involve a tool with which to simply crush the nut; the screw nutcracker; and the ever-popular lever.

In collecting nutcrackers, one is certainly spoiled for choice. Nutcrackers have been crafted of a stunning variety of materials, from wood and metals to porcelain, ivory and even plastic, and refl ect the styles of their times and culture. They were also tools of some importance and prestige. In fact, there is evidence of nutcrackers being found in ancient graves!

Perhaps the most recognizable and collectible nutcracker is the lever. Normally consisting of two rods joined together to form a fulcrum, or pivot point, a lever applied either direct or indirect pressure on the nut to crack the shell, depending on which side of the fulcrum the nut was placed. If placed on the side of the fulcrum nearest the hand, this was direct pressure. If placed on the opposite side, the nut was cracked with indirect pressure.

Levers are almost certainly the most popular and oldest type of nutcrackers still to be found today. Carved initially of wood, and later made of metals like cast or wrought iron or silver plate, lever nutcrackers have been found dating to the 3rd and 4th centuries B.C. These earliest forms were made of metal, and many already exhibited incredible artistry. For instance, one example housed at the Leavenworth Nutcracker Museum in Leavenworth, Wash., currently displays a Roman nutcracker, crafted of bronze and intricately decorated, that is dated between 200 B.C. and 200 A.D.

Levers were made of a great variety of woods, either carved by hand or turned on a lathe, from nut and fruitwoods to pine, birch or the favored boxwood, which gave carvers a fi ne grain and even color. Some amazing specimens of these wooden, or treen nutcrackers, carved in France and England, can be dated to the 16th century and are still in exceptional condition. Displaying an incredible array of designs, especially human and animal fi gures, these crackers show an amazing amount of detail. And detail was incredibly important, as craftsmen turned these commonplace items into works of art. Those from Europe, particularly Germany, France, Italy and England, are of particular interest and value. Today, many are housed in prestigious collections around the world, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Leavenworth Museum.

Levers made of metal, especially cast or wrought iron, are the most common nutcrackers to be found and are highly collectible. Cast iron fi gural crackers, mostly made in England and the United States, were quite popular, as a particular style could be easily reproduced. These often exude a folksy charm and can be found in the forms of animals, particularly squirrels and dogs, and any number of unique characters.

Crackers of cast brass were also made in England in the 18th and 19th centuries. The 19th century also saw the creation of silver and silver-plate nutcrackers that were included in fi ne fl atware services. Crafted by the best makers of the Victorian Era, these crackers were also sold individually or in sets with grape shears or nut picks. These fashionable items exhibited the greatest intricacy, which they maintained over the years.

Many levers were also reversible, meaning the two arms could be reversed to accommodate larger or smaller nuts. This silver pair (pictured), auctioned at Bonhams for £276, was made by English silversmith William Bateman and dates to 1790. Two similar pairs, hallmarked 1847 by John & Henry Lias, brought £2,000, or $3,904, at Christie’s in 2008.

A more compact form of nutcracker was the screw, which fi rst appeared in the 17th century. Essentially carved of wood, these crackers consisted of a small cavity in which a nut was placed, pierced by a screw, that when turned, gradually added pressure to the nut to crack the shell. These could be simple or carved in fi gural shapes, like the late 18th or early 19th century treen piece pictured, probably carved of coquilla nut wood, which takes the form of Mr. Punch.

Screws were also made of metals, like levers, such as iron, as well as brass and silver, and displayed ingenious and intricate motifs. They were also made of more precious materials, like this ivory screw. Ivory was typically considered to be too soft to withstand the repetitive cracking and was usually used as an accent to metal crackers. Those made completely of ivory are rare, and those in good condition are even rarer.

Most antique nutcrackers to be found on the market today will date to the 19th and early 20th centuries, and some real treasures can be found from this period. It is very rare to fi nd 16th to 18th century items, but it is possible. Christie’s auction house has auctioned a number of crackers dating to this period, including a northwest European fi gural lever nutcracker of carved boxwood, circa 1500, which sold for more than $4,400, and a similar fi gural boxwood lever, either German or Italian in origin, circa 1572, which brought a price of £10,000, or $14,720.

Some of the most collectible and valuable nutcrackers are not antiques at all. A few companies are renowned for making the iconic nutcracker style, and the fi nest are considered to be produced in the Seiffen region of the Erzebirge Mountains in Germany. Wilhelm Füchtner, who is known as the “father of the nutcracker,” produced the fi rst in 1870 in this very region.

Today, companies like the Steinbach Company produce some of the most whimsical and artistically inventive fi gures on the market. They are among the most valuable, as many of the styles have been discontinued after a limited run. The company’s fi gure of Merlin the wizard, for example, was introduced in 1991, and made in a run of only 7,500. A Merlin today can be priced at almost $4,000.

As with starting and creating any collection, it is important to decide where one’s interests lay. One can collect nutcrackers by style, type of material, or even geographical region. It is also crucial to learn to identify items of good quality and those with a bit a wear and tear, as condition will affect value, and to learn how to care for items made of more fragile materials. Age can take a toll on even the hardiest metal if not stored in the right conditions or cleaned properly.

To fi nd out more about the fascinating world of nutcrackers, search your local library or bookstore for some of the highly informative books on the subjects, such as The Art & Character of Nutcrackers by Arlene Wagner, Ornamental & Figural Nutcrackers by Judith A. Rittenhouse, and Nutcrackers by Robert Mills. These books are wonderful for learning the in-depth history of nutcrackers, as well as how to start a collection and how to identify your fi nds. Also, don’t forget about contacting online sellers and the Nutcracker Collector’s Association for expert advice.

In The Nutcracker, the little soldier is the most treasured gift of all. For those who value beauty, history and a touch of whimsy, these enchanting tools can open up a whole new world.

___________________________ 

A native New Orleanian, Daniele Gair has been obsessed with the written word and the arts ever since she could remember. Holding a B.A. in English from Newcomb College of Tulane University, she has honed her skills as a professional writer for 13 years. Daniele has explored the world of visual art as an owner of an art gallery, and she currently researches and writes about fi ne art and antiques for M.S. Rau Antiques in New Orleans. 

A Merlin nutcracker by the Steinbach Company, introduced in 1991. (Photo: Mt Olympus Clock Shop, www.mtolympusclocks.com)

A pair of George III silver nutcrackers, by William Bateman, London 1790, 5.3 inches in length; sold for £276 with bp. (Photo: Bonhams)

A late 18th or early 19th century treen (probably coquilla nut) nutcracker carved in the form of Mr. Punch, 5.5 inches high; sold for £120 including bp. (Photo: Bonhams)

 

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