Nutcrackers are not only for Christmas even though they are often associated with that time of year. As a follow-up to a recent Guardian Liberty Voice article about how The Nutcracker ballet was inspired by the popular wooden toys, this article focuses on nutcrackers around the world.
The most recognized is the wooden soldier dressed in an 18th or 19th-century uniform, poised as if ready for guard duty. These figurines were carved in the Ore Mountain region between Germany and the Czech Republic, originally as a way to people to have a source of income once the area mines dried up. To this day, most of the wooden soldiers continue to come from Germany while other wooden nutcrackers come from the Tyrolean Alps region of Austria, Germany, Switzerland and Italy.
According to the Steinbach family in Germany who has been making nutcrackers for two centuries, a wooden figurine can involve up to 130 procedures to get a finished product. After the wood is cut in various sizes, it is shaped using a high speed cutter. The shapes are glued and held together under the pressure of a vise or clamp.
Before the invention of the automatic lathe, carving was done by hand-turning. This ancient craft takes years of experience to perfect but the results are smooth parts cut freehand from a wooden block. The lathe made the job a lot easier and allowed for the mass production of turned parts. After the pieces are polished, a hole is drilled and slanted angles, or bevels, are cut so the pieces can be joined together.
The final steps are repeatedly dipping, spraying and drying, in that order, to get a smooth surface. Wood carvers add the finishing touches by hand before the figurines are painted. This is the last step and is also done by hand. Each color must dry completely before the next one is added. When this is finished, the nutcrackers are ready for presentation to the general public.
The Leavenworth Nutcracker Museum in Leavenworth, Washington, has over 5,000 nutcrackers from 40 countries. Many of those are made from other material besides wood and are in other shapes besides soldiers. For example, other materials used are brass, iron and steel, silver, bronze and aluminum. There are also nutcrackers with ivory and porcelain used for decorative purposes. Additional shapes are of other people such as kings, clowns and others, animals, pliers, screw-type devices. The museum’s website has pictures of nutcrackers from 16 countries to show the wide variety of creativity in historical design. Those countries represented are: Argentina, Australia, Austria, Canada, England, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Norway, Russia, Spain, Switzerland, United States and the former Yugoslavia.
The museum works regularly with school children, offering classes on the history of nutcrackers and how to make them. The children select from various designs ranging from Little Red Riding Hood to George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. If they want less traditional characters, their choices range from Darth Vader to members of King Arthur’s Court. They also study the importance of nuts, where did they grow, how were they used and by whom.
To learn more about the history of nutcrackers throughout the centuries, not only for Christmas but anytime, please visit the Leavenworth Nutcracker Museum website listed below.
By Cynthia Collins
All photos used by permission from the Leavenworth Nutcracker Museum