German Erzgebirge Nutcrackers

The History of the German Nutcrackers

The history of nutcrackers goes back over 2000 years. Long before the first decorative German Erzgebirge nutcracker was crafted the Greek Aristotle invented a device to crack open nuts. It had 2 levers and served its purpose perfectly.

The nut cracking tools became very popular soon after their invention. Scientist found many bronze nutcrackers in ancient graves which prove that nutcrackers have also been a decorative item more than 2000 years ago. This fact also shows that nutcrackers were of high value because only valuable object were placed in graves. People also must have thought that nutcrackers would be important for the person’s afterlife.

From ancient times to medieval there are not that many new facts about nutcrackers to report. In the 16th century this changes. In England the first nutcracker for primarily decorative purposes was crafted. When King Henry VIII was looking for a present for his wife Anna Boleyn he decided that a nutcracker is the right choice. Famous genius Leonardo Da Vinci also was attracted by these wonderful wooden figurines. He invented a machine to craft wooden nutcrackers and other wooden figures.

In the 18th century nutcrackers became more and more popular all over Europe. The Bavarians in Oberammergau carved nutcrackers that had oriental motives. In South Tyrol which is a German speaking region in northern Italy the craftsmen carved nutcrackers that were just supposed to make people laugh about their funny look. Today South Tyrol and Oberammergau are leading regions for nativity hand carvings and do not craft nutcrackers anymore. The center of nutcracker production is the Germany Erzgebirge. When people think of a nutcracker they have a certain image in their mind. It's the typical grim look of an Erzgebirge nutcracker with a crown on his head and painted in many colors.

The Erzgebirge is a very traditional region in Eastern Germany close to the Czech Republic. Huge deposits of silver and tin have made the Erzgebirge a very wealthy region during the 16th to 18th century. The mines dried out during the late 18th and 19th century and forced the skilled miners to find other income sources. They started to professionally craft wooden toys and gifts. For almost two centuries wood carving was a popular hobby of the miners in their spare time. All Erzgebirge nutcrackers go back to these century old roots.

The first Erzgebirge nutcrackers

As mentioned above the typical German Erzgebirge nutcracker has a grim look and an angry mouth. The typical motif is a policeman, a king or a soldier that were the authorities of the 18th and 19th century. People feared them and depended on their benevolence. It was very dangerous to criticize those authorities and fall out of their favor. The nutcracker image was a relatively safe way to express some criticism without risking ones life. The first Erzgebirge nutcracker was crafted in 1865 in the workshop of a family named Fuechtner. Over 120 work procedures have been necessary for the first Erzgebirge nutcracker over 140 years ago. He was a king in bright colors with a crown that reminded of a miners hat and wore a uniform with filigree ornaments. Fuechtner used rabbit skin for the hair and the beard as well as dough for the feet and eyes. Some of the first nutcrackers can still be viewed in museums around the Erzgebirge. The family Fuechtner still produces exclusive nutcrackers in small numbers today. The basic work procedure today is still very close to Fuechtner’s first nutcracker. Most Erzgebirge manufacturers use modern machines to speed up the process but pay great attention to traditions.

Nutcrackers have also appeared in Art and Literature. Very popular are the fairy tale by E.T.A. Hoffmann “Nutcracker and Mouseking” and the famous ballet by Tschaikowski “The Nutcracker” which is based on Hoffmann’s story. The ballet premiered in 1892 in Russia. The first production outside Russia was in 1934 and in the USA it could first be seen in 1944. Both works contributed to the great success of the decorative nutcrackers. Especially Tschaikowski’s ballet has spread the look of a typical Erzgebirge nutcracker throughout the world. Many nutcracker enthusiasts started to collect those wonderful items and the Erzgebirge workshops produced new models in uncountable designs every year. Some collectors have several thousand nutcrackers and still are far from having them all.

The Erzgebirge companies Steinbach Volkskunst (plants in Marienberg and Hohenhameln) and Holzkunst Christian Ulbricht (plants in Seiffen and Lauingen) are the most imaginative and successful manufacturers of nutcrackers. To be internationally successful they started to craft new modern designs every year. Most of their nutcrackers are far beyond the classical Erzgebirge nutcrackers. They have crafted nutcrackers of Albert Einstein, US civil war generals, Popes, US presidents, Sherlock Holmes, the Phantom of the Opera and many other popular motifs. To make their nutcrackers even more attractive for collectors they have limited many of them to a certain number of pieces which again increased prices and demand. Another reason for their great success is the fact that they have left the Erzgebirge after 1949 when the Communist German Democratic Republic was founded and operated from West Germany. This was an huge advantage compared to many other Erzgebirge workshops that stayed in the Erzgebirge during Communist reign and could not develop their businesses during 1949-1990. When the iron curtain disappeared in 1990 and Germany had been reunited Steinbach and Ulbricht right away built new plants in the Erzgebirge and now operate from former East and West Germany. Other manufacturers of nutcrackers include the famous KWO Olbernhau, Seiffener Volkskunst and Richard Glasser.

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