If you think nutcrackers begin and end with toy soldiers, think again.
If you think nutcrackers begin and end with toy soldiers, think again. (photo: Leavenworth Nutcracker Museum)

People are captivated by the charm of nutcrackers.

— Arlene Wagner, Director of the Nutcracker Museum

A light snow is falling on the town of Leavenworth, Washington, and visitors shake off the flakes before climbing a narrow stairwell to a seemingly modest little museum -- the Nutcracker Museum.

As it turns out, what’s waiting at the top of those stairs isn’t so modest. It’s the grand realm of the Nutcracker Lady: a 3,000-square-foot space featuring more than 6,000 nutcrackers and spanning 8,000 years of humankind’s shell-prying inventiveness, culture, artistry and humor. Once inside, visitors’ visions of brightly painted wooden toy soldiers, decked-out Santas and armed Cossacks give way to an even bigger, quirkier fantasy.

“Hey, over here! It’s Yoda!” shouted one Seattle man to his friends. “I knew Yoda liked nuts.”

A nutcracking Yoda he is; alone in novelty he is not. Here, nutcrackers take many forms -- of Humpty Dumpty, Peter Pan, the "Big, Bad Wolf" and most of the Walt Disney Pantheon, among others. Hilary Clinton makes an appearance. So does the Wizard of Oz.

“Most people think of toy soldiers because of the Nutcracker Ballet,” says Arlene Wagner, 87, the self-described Nutcracker Lady, and director/co-founder of the Nutcracker Museum. “They have no idea what is actually here.”

Yoda's resume includes mentoring young Jedis and cracking nuts. (photo: Debera Harrell)

Certainly, the collection is rife with Christmas holiday spirit, but the story it tells is really one for all seasons: How hungry humans progressed from bashing nuts with rocks to using more sophisticated, specialized and artistic nutcrackers, many of which are collected now more for aesthetic, historical or antique value than utility.

Wearing a red dirndl and white lace apron, Wagner greets visitors surprised by the museum’s broad scope. A former ballet teacher, she says the collection reflects not only her passion and devotion to nutcrackers, but her own evolved interest in art, culture, archaeology and anthropology.

“People are captivated by the charm of nutcrackers,” she says.

The museum’s collection has been built over four decades with help from antique dealers, archaeologists, historians, nutcracker crafters, and folk art and other experts from Germany, the U.S., England, the Netherlands, Italy and France.

Many on display are a far cry from the earliest days of “percussion” -- breaking the nutshell with a rock, hammer or plunger device -- which had the distinct disadvantage of damaging the food source. As horticulture improved, yielding larger nuts, lever- and screw-type nutcrackers were developed. These allowed people to apply enough pressure to break the shell, and extract walnuts, pecans and other nutmeats intact.

Among these basic types of tools are thousands of variations. Nutcrackers have been carved of ivory, boxwood, linden, spruce, pine, walnut, fir, teak, olive or other woods. Or made or molded from iron, bronze, brass, silver, gold or other metals. The actual range and variety of nutcracker tools, materials and designs is “mind-boggling,” as Susan Otto, president of the American Nutcracker Collectors' Club, puts it.

Wagner, a.k.a. "The Nutcracker Lady," displays quite a few nutcrackers, but none as big as 6-foot "Karl," custom made for her in Germany. (photo: Debera Harrell)

Who knew that nutcrackers came in such varied forms as 5,000-8,000 year-old “nutting rocks,” a risqué brass French courtesan (her torso lifts up); a beer wagon made of linden (the nut is cracked between the kegs), a Medici family guard of ebony, an intricately carved monk carrying a lamb, or silver-plated “frog’s legs”?

The move from the mere utility of stones to more expressive and creative nutcrackers began millennia ago. Southern Italy’s Taranto Archaeological National Museum is home to one of the oldest such nutcrackers. Dated the late 4th or early 3rd century B.C., it is made of bronze with gold “bracelets” that adorn the wrists and serve as handles. Nearly 2,000 years later, the burgeoning artistic expression of the Renaissance led to more imaginative and elegant nutcracker designs.

But it wasn’t until 1816, experts say, that the Christmas nutcracker tradition grew. That year, the story "Nussknacker und Mausekonig" (The Nutcracker and the Mouse King) by E.T.A. Hoffman was published. It inspired Tchaikovsky's 1892 ballet, which further boosted nutcrackers' popularity.

The toy-soldier type nutcrackers we know so well developed in a former ore-mining area of Germany known as Erzgebirge (“Ore Mountains”). When the ore ran out, local craftsmen already adept at folk art turned to making exquisitely carved wooden toys, and then nutcrackers. The Erzgebirge region still supplies the most famous and sought-after nutcrackers.

Still, Wagner says Chinese “knock-offs” have “created havoc” in the nutcracker world, driving some European makers out of business. But the cheaper Chinese versions don't carry the same value or craftsmanship as those made by German makers Steinbach, Ulbricht, KWO, Glasser and others. Steinbach, for example, ages its boxwood five years to dry it out and preserve it before beginning the carving process.

Many Erzgebirge nutcrackers are on display at the Nutcracker Museum, the largest museum of its kind in the world and one of the few worldwide. British nutcracker expert Robert Mills, author of the book, “Nutcrackers,” calls the Leavenworth museum “the best collection of nutcrackers available to the general public.”

Indeed, there seems to be something for everyone. Museum-goers can find a low-tech, soup-can nutcracker or a St. Nicholas adorned with Swarovski crystals. From storybooks to holy books, myth and history, animals and people, the intricately hand-carved wooden pieces draw inspiration from nearly everywhere.

“I like the ones of famous people,” said one Russian tourist of the sweep of wooden figures, including Moses, Richard the Lionheart, Napoleon and Otto von Bismarck.

Hannah Zarkowskyj, a Ukranian native and current Seattleite who lived in Munich, said the museum far exceeded her expectations.

“I don’t know what it is, exactly, about nutcrackers. They’re so unusual, and they appeal to everybody,” Zarkowskyj said. “For me, it’s tradition; it brings back happy memories. Every Christmas we would get a nutcracker -- my kids’ favorite is Gepetto from the Pinocchio story -- but I had no idea until I came here of the variety of nutcrackers.”

Maybe it’s tradition that keeps the nutcracker craze alive.

  • Photo Credit Leavenworth Nutcracker Museum Debera Harrell
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