According to reports, an Italian bronze nutcracker dating back to the 4th century B.C. is among the earliest known, and King Henry VIII gave Anne Boleyn a nutcracker as a gift. Nutcrackers span the globe among various cultures.
Sparked by famous examples amassed by collectors, an interest in the history of cracking the nut uncovers three basic methods to free a nut from its shell: percussion, lever or screw. Materials used to make nutcrackers run the gamut, including stone, wood and metal.
For instance, nutting stones were found in North America and parts of northern Europe 5,000 to 8,000 years ago. A nut placed in the depression of a stone was smashed by another stone, called a hammer stone, to reveal a nut inside the shell.
Nutcrackers may be carved from pine, cedar, spruce or other conifer trees. Linden, beech, ash, oak or boxwood often are chosen among deciduous trees. With a wooden screw-type nutcracker, introduced in the 17th century, a nut sits in an open cavity of the cracker and a screw comes down hard enough to crack it.
Some early nutcrackers display metal hinges or levers. For instance, a lever-forced nutcracker works with a nut placed in the mouth of a cast metal figure such as a dog, alligator or wolf. A nut positioned in the belly of a carved nutcracker figure helps prevent damage to the decorated face, with a lever at the back or an elongated nose creating a lever for cracking.
Dating to the 1700s, Italy’s Groden Valley was the famous site for the creation of figural nutcrackers made of pine and paint. In northern Italy, carvers produced lever nutcrackers. Well-known artisan Anton Riffeser established the Anri firm in the 1920s.
Germany’s Erzgebirge percussion nutcrackers from the Ore Mountain region 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 vendors and seafarers.
German makers Otto Ulbricht and the Steinbach firm became known for nutcrackers with fanciful accessories. Holiday forms often include reindeer, Santa Claus or characters from, of course, the “Nutcracker Suite.”
Ivory was tried but could not withstand the force of repeated use. High-style china table settings included porcelain nutcrackers. The top of a famous porcelain screw nutcracker by Meissen, with a brass wheel for crushing the nut, matched the china pattern.
Once nuts were cracked, metal picks became necessary to dislodge them. Other accessories include nut bowls, serving spoons, nut openers used to pry open cracked nuts. Fruit knives, essentially small-scale pocket knives, were used to eat fruits and nuts at the end of a meal. Ever-popular nut bowls often came in pairs — one for nuts and the other to hold loose shells.
Sets of a nutcracker and assorted pick have been popular. They were the brainchild of a 19th-century dentist, Henry Quackenbush, whose initial start in making dental tools made him famous as a nut-cracking technician.
Celebrity appraiser Lori Verderame is an internationally syndicated columnist, author and award-winning TV personality who stars on History channel’s “The Curse of Oak Island” and Discovery’s “Auction Kings.” With a Ph.D. from Penn State, Dr. Lori presents antique appraisal events to worldwide audiences. Visit www.DrLoriV.com/events or 888-431-1010.