With his pristine uniform, giant jaws, and friendly expression, the nutcracker soldier is a timeless symbol of Christmas. Although usually associated with the German Erzgebirge (Ore Mountains), the history of the nutcracker spans many cultures and countries.
Despite its association with German culture, the nutcracker first appeared in 14th Century England and France. These first varieties of decorative nutcracker were fashioned from poured brass, and favored a simple, straightforward design over elaborate decoration.
In fact, the carved wooden nutcracker didn't gain popularity until the 16th century, when wood carvers in England and France used local woods to craft an intricate, striking variety of nutcracker.
By the 18th Century, craftsmen in Italy and Switzerland were creating nutcrackers in the shapes of bears, squirrels, and little men.
The Nutcracker and the German Erzgebirge
Around 1800, craftsmen in the German Erzgebirge began to create the little man we know as the nutcracker with his trim painted uniform and mysterious smile. However, the Erzgebirge nutcracker also took the form of certain authority figures. Monks and the German Kaiser were popular models.
The first commercial production of the German nutcracker also originated in the Erzgebirge when Wilhelm Fuchtner, who is considered the father of the nutcracker, used an efficient lathe to create a large number of nutcrackers in 1872.
The Nutcracker Today
Today, the Erzgebirge region ships nearly 75 percent of its nutcracker collectibles to American collectors. Aside from its traditional nutcracker soldier form, today's mini nutcrackers can resemble anything from Abraham Lincoln to a wild pirate.
Whether he's cracking nuts or tickling our heartstrings with his endearing expression, the nutcracker is a symbol of Germany's Erzgebirge and a beloved collectible the world over.