All Cracked Up

By Darlene Fuchs on Email

In legend, the Nutcracker possessed miraculous powers, bringing good fortune and protection from evil spirits. The more elaborate their decorations, the stronger their powers.

The nutcracker story began with the creation of European nutcrackers in England, Switzerland, France and Germany, in the regions of Sonneberg and Exgebirge near the Bohemaian border, during the 16th and 17th centuries.

The miners, who worked long hours in the mines of the Ore Mountains, endured hardship and poverty during the winter months. Carving dolls, resembling kings, military officers and other prominent members of the upper classes, became popular until the miners could return to work. The townspeople enjoyed the whimsical caricatures, because they perform the lowly task of cracking nuts.

German homes didn’t typically have more than one of the dolls, and so, during rough economic times in the early 19th century, the region’s toy makers started selling them to Russia, Poland and Norway. Eventually, these one-of-a-kind standing soldiers and kings became a symbol of the region and were sold all over Europe. Demand increased and by the 1870s, factories started the commercial production of nutcrackers.

According to German folklore, a nutcracker represents power and strength, guarding your family from evil spirits and danger. A fierce protector, the nutcracker bares its teeth to the evil spirits and serves as the traditional messenger of good luck and goodwill.

Although nutcrackers have been around for ages, they were not always the collectible items as we know them today. In fact, nutcrackers only became a popular collectible in the United States about 60 years ago.

Many of the US GI’s who were stationed in Germany during World War II, visited “Christkindlmarkets”, where they discovered the intriguing nutcrackers. When the soldiers returned home after the war, a new companion accompanied them. The soldiers brought home this figure of power and protection to their families and loved ones. And so, the nutcrackers, with their rich heritage, arrived in the United States.

Tchaikovsky’s ballet, “The Nutcracker Suite”, became very popular in the United States in the early 1950’s, igniting the passion for nutcrackers. The magic and mystery of the ballet has intrigued and enchanted audiences year after year. The strong following of this classic production greatly increased the popularity of collecting nutcrackers in America.

Christian Steinbach ©

The role of the Steinbach family, who contributed greatly to the rising popularity of nutcrackers, cannot be overemphasized. The first limited edition nutcracker piece was King Ludwig II, which was limited to 3,000 pieces. The idea of a limited nutcracker produced an overwhelming response because it contributed to the collectability of the nutcrackers and greatly increased their value.

Each character is created from “living” wood, typically pine, maple, beech or linden, and may take up to three or four years to produce, with over 100 separate procedures. Craftsmen with years of experience must devote their time to the many steps in the process. Hand carving and painting is still seen on modern figures, with native craftsmen and their families using centuries-old techniques to create the stunning results now available.

The East Germans stuck to the traditional nutcracker – the king and the guard.  After reunification West German businesses bought the East German toy companies. The business nature changed and designs became more innovative expanding the once traditional court to include women.

The resilience of the nutcracker and the Steinbach family is evidenced in the quote: “If one does not work hard to earn the heritage, one will perish in the end, or at best hold the stirrups for those who are on their way up.”

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Darlene Fuchs