Cracking the Nutcracker!
Nutcrackers. For most Americans, the word bring forth images of Christmas and ballet dancers. The nutcracker has evolved over the centuries from a homely tool into collectible folk art, but their form and function have specific origins and meanings. The earliest nutcrackers (other than a pair of rocks!) were iron or bronze pincers, similar to modern pliers. By the Middle Ages, wooden tools had become common, and slowly these took on playful shapes. The jaws of a nutcracker lent themselves to obvious human and animal forms
The toy soldier nutcracker is a relatively modern style. After the wars of Napoleon, Europe was awash in uniformed men, and German workshops adapted their nutcrackers to this modern style. In 1872 Wilhelm Fuchtner, known as the father of the nutcracker, made the first commercial nutcrackers in his shop in the Erzgebirge, a mountain range running from Saxony and Bohemia. These proved to be very popular, and the artisans such as Junghanel, Klaus Mertens, Karl, Olaf Kolbe, Petersen, Christian Ulbricht and especially the Steinbach nutcrackers have become collectors' items.
The association of nutcrackers with Christmas was greatly enhanced by Peter Tchaikovsky's famous ballet, The Nutcracker. Based on a story by E. T. A. Hoffmann, this beloved holiday classic was a flop when it first premiered in 1892. Today, many major American ballet companies earn 40% of their annual income from performing The Nutcracker alone.
Trader Chris has recently taken on a nice collection of modern German nutcrackers, chiefly by Steinbach and Ulbricht. A few in the collection were made in East Germany during the Cold War. These figures are usually not as elaborate as their Western counterparts, but well carved and nicely painted. Communist-era nutcrackers are marked "VEB" for Volkseigener Betrieb, for "Peoples' Owned Enterprise," and DDR (for Deutsche Demokratische Republik, German Democratic Republic).
Senior Writer Researcher