What Is a Nutcracker?

Nutcracker. Photo © Tracy Wicklund

Question: What Is a Nutcracker?

My family loves seeing The Nutcracker Ballet each year, but what exactly is a "nutcracker?"

Answer: A nutcracker is an instrument used to crack nuts, typically consisting of two hinged metal levers between which the nut is squeezed. The tool designed to crack open all sorts of nuts, and usually resemble a pair of pliers. Unlike pliers, the pivot point is located at the end beyond the nut, rather than in the middle.

The spring-jointed nutcracker was invented by Henry Quackenbush in 1913. Nutcrackers are also sometimes used for cracking the shells of crab and lobster to reveal the meat inside.

Modern Nutcrackers

Nutcrackers in the form of wooden carvings of a soldier, knight, king, or other profession date back to the 15th century. The nutcrackers resemble people with large mouths which the operator opens by lifting a lever in the back of the figurine. (One could originally insert a nut into the mouth, press down and crack the nut.) Modern nutcrackers of this type serve mostly as decoration, mainly at Christmas time.

Wooden nutcrackers have become popular in the United States. The handcrafted wooden nutcrackers are a sought after collector's item. The "Bavarian village" of Leavenworth, Washington, features a nutcracker museum. Many other materials also serve to make decorated nutcrackers, such as porcelain, silver, and brass; the museum displays samples.

Carvings by famous names like Junghanel, Klaus Mertens, Karl, Olaf Kolbe, Petersen, Christian Ulbricht and especially the Steinbach nutcrackers have become collectors' items.

Steinbach Nutcrackers

Originating as a cottage industry in the rural areas of Germany, the carving of nutcrackers has become widespread.

The most popular and famous nutcracker carvings come from Sonneberg in Thuringia, and form the Ore Mountains. The most famous carvings came from Herr Christian Steinbach. He is also known as the “King of Nutcrackers”, as he started the tradition of hand crafting and carving nutcrackers. The Steinbach name is recognized throughout the world for the unique design of the wood-carved Steinbach creations. The unique tradition of hand crafting nutcrackers is continued by Herr Steinbach’s daughter, Karla Steinbach and granddaughter Karolin Steinbach. Karla Steinbach, Vice President of Operations, is the 6th generation to lead the company.

Good Luck Symbols

According to German folklore, nutcrackers bring good luck to your family and protect your home. A nutcracker is said to represent power and strength, serving somewhat like a watch dog guarding your family from danger. A nutcracker bares its teeth to evil spirits and serves as a messenger of good luck and goodwill. Long ago, rare or unusual nutcrackers were part of the social dining tradition. Serving as whimsical conversation pieces, guests lingered at the table enjoying shelled treats such as pecans and hazelnuts.

The Nutcracker Ballet

The Nutcracker Ballet greatly popularized the nutcracker.

When the holiday ballet became popular in the United States in the early 1950’s, demand for nutcrackers increased tremendously. Today, many people collect themed nutcrackers, displaying them during the holidays or even throughout the year. However, the most popular nutcracker remains the wooden nutcracker doll presented as a Christmas gift to Clara. Dressed as a soldier, it is crushed by Clara’s jealous brother, Fritz. It is gently tucked under the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve, coming to life at the stroke of midnight.