Soldiering On: How The Nutcracker Came To Be

Little did I ever anticipate writing about something as basic to Christmas as a nutcracker. Until Thursday, December 16th, 2021, which was the date of a photo excursion by the Georgian Bay Photographic Club members to one of the largest Nurseries and Greenhouses in Canada, the Bradford Greenhouses Garden Gallery in Barrie, Ontario. There are thousands of nurseries in Canada, supplying our population with flowers, garden and food plants, bushes, trees, tools, machines and many other items.

Peter’s Nutcracker Doll

Peter Iden’s Nutcracker Doll

One of the features of interest to me were their numerous nutcracker dolls, a fond childhood memory from my native Germany. When the only one we owned appeared in the living room, Christmas was not far away. It now has a place in my living room year-round. The wooden nutcracker is a colourful wooden soldier, which has been around in that form for about 200 years now.

Since the beginning of mankind’s presence on earth nuts required to be crushed before being eaten. From smashing them with rocks countless thousands of years ago, to the present sophisticated wooden and metal devices, it has a long history of evolution.

No one knows who made the first nutcracker shaped like today’s pliers, but it has survived, and many of us have one in one of our kitchen drawers. The lever nutcracker came onto the nutty scene in the 13th Century. They had animal heads and features, and movable tails which were pushed to move the jaw upward, exerting pressure on the nut. Animal-shaped brass nutcrackers were next on the scene in the 14th and 15th Centuries.

Wooden nutcrackers shaped and dressed like soldiers caught on in Europe during the 16th century. Here the historical opinions diverge among the “nutty experts” as to how and why nutcrackers came to look like colourfully dressed soldiers. Much like the lever nutcrackers, they operate by a handle in its back. When the lever is pushed down, the nutcracker’s jaw would move up and smash the nut placed in its mouth.

NutcrackersThe iconic standing wooden soldier nutcracker as we know it today was first made in the Erzgebirge in central Germany. “Erz” in German means “ore”, so it denotes the ore “mountains” of Germany, where much of the country’s underground resources were located. The people were very poor, like the people in the Appalachian Mountains of America. Most men were miners, and some of their hobbies when they were not working underground were music, playing some basic instruments (like the banjo, which came from Africa with the slaves), singing, dancing and wood carving. They carved figures from their everyday life, miners of course, firemen, policemen etc. I would like to advance my own theory of why they also turned to carve soldier nutcrackers.

In their region, because of its poverty, the only source of income, other than working in a mine, was being hired and paid by rich land owners and royalty as foot soldiers, which these then hired out as mercenaries to other regions and countries, like the French Legionnaires.

Nutcracker soldiersIt is no surprise then that the standing wooden soldier nutcracker, the iconic nutcracker that we know today, was first made commercially in Hessia in Germany in 1872. About 30,000 Hessians were hired out by their Westfalian Masters as auxiliary forces to the British during the Revolutionary War in America. At one point in this war, German Hessians made up one quarter of the total British armed forces in the world. The British army was made up entirely of volunteers and mercenaries during the entire first world war (even in Europe). Contrary to the German and French armies, whose soldiers were conscripted.

The use of nutcracker dolls was probably due to the fact that at that time France and England were using mercenaries to battle each other on the ground and at sea. The designs of wooden nutcrackers complimented the boastful reds, blues and other colours worn by the soldiers of that time.

Nutcracker with 2 stagsQuite simply stated then, a mercenary is a member of a private civilian army, paid to do military operations in a foreign conflict zone.

In spite of what the general public today knows and believes, mercenaries are not a thing of the past. They are still for hire through some commercial firms, which employ mostly young adventure-seeking “Warriors for Profit”. They are better equipped than national armies, and have recently fought in Nigeria, Iraq, Ukraine, Syria and Yemen (“The Modern Mercenary”, 2015 by Shawn McFate and “Mercenaries and War: Understanding Private Armies Today”, 2019, by the same Author).

When the war times had settled down somewhat in the 17th century and the first moves into the industrial age were seen, the new mechanical knowledge was applied to nutcrackers, and the screw nutcracker was invented, cracking the nut by twisting the screw inside the bowl. Although these devices caught on due to their practicality, the wooden sculpture nutcrackers continued to evolve. But the soldier remains the classic iconic nutcracker image.

Written by

Peter Iden is a resident of Wasaga Beach and a Naturalist and Photographer who has a broad range of knowledge of the natural world. Peter is also a volunteer Warden for the Piping Plover Recovery Programme with the Friends of Nancy Island.


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