Antique nutcracker

by Dr. Lori Verderame

Nutcrackers have been collected for centuries. Nuts could be cracked using nutting stones and nutcrackers were used as far back as 5,000  years ago in North America.

Nutcrackers use one of three basic methods to free a nut from its shell: percussion, lever or screw.

Screw type nutcrackers would crack a nut as a result of the pressure from the turning of the screw down on the nut. Levers and hinged nutcrackers accomplished the task of breaking a nut’s shell by force. A nut would be placed in the mouth or chamber of a nutcracker and the hinged lever would be pressed down to crack the nut. The chamber could be in the belly or the mouth of a figural nutcracker with an elongated nose that seconded for a lever. These nutcrackers had a unique design and exposed the nut in a playful way.

German Nutcrackers

In the Ore mountains of Germany, percussion nutcrackers were made. And, German firms were also known for their highly collectible figural nutcrackers with fancy decorations and accessorized costumes. For example, Otto Ulbricht and the Steinbach firm made nutcrackers that are among the most collectible, recognizable, and sought after pieces on the market today.

In the 18th Century, German craftsmen introduced collectors to one of the most sought after holiday collectible figurines, the nutcracker. A form which relates to the history of military regalia, the nutcracker is a guardian and power symbol from Bavaria.

Figural nutcrackers were thought to bring good luck to their owners. The nutcracker’s brightly colored regalia remind visitors to a home of the residents’ authority and social status. The strident figures recall the wintertime fantasies put forth in literature and the theatre, particularly referencing Tchaikovsky’s famous Nutcracker Suite.

Italian Nutcrackers

The Groden valley region of Italy was a well known site for the production of nutcrackers as far back as the 1700s. Most nutcrackers made here were figural nutcrackers that were carved and painted. The figural nutcracker tradition continued in Italy well into the 20th Century. A famous nutcracker production firm called Anri was established by the Italian artisan, Anton Riffeser in the 1920 and many of his nutcrackers retain this distinguished mark. 

What to Look For

Look for good quality nutcrackers with decorative bodies, forms, and working parts. 

Nut residue, depressions in the nutcracker showing signs of use, and authentic designs will help you date your nutcracker collectibles. 

Collectible nutcrackers can range in value from the store bought version for about $125 to the collectors type dating from the 16th Century commanding upwards of $5,000.  These objects are decorative, historical and vastly interesting.

Get an online appraisal of your nutcracker collectible from Dr. Lori.