How The Nutcracker predicted and preserved a place for modern nutcrackers
There’s an interesting bit of foreshadowing in E. T. A. Hoffmann’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King concerning, well, nutcrackers. In the story and ballet adaptations, a boy named Fritz breaks the teeth and jaw on his sister’s new nutcracker after stuffing the “biggest and toughest nuts into his mouth.” This would have been unusual to the story’s original German audience in 1816, since at that point nutcrackers were hand carved to be functional as well as decorative. Without commenting on the validity of cursed princes or dancing sugarplums, it turns out that this plot point predicted a lot of the fate of toy soldier nutcrackers around the world.
From apparatus to adornment
Nutcrackers’ original job, as you’d imagine, was to break open the shells of things like walnuts and almonds so that people could eat the meat of the nut inside. This job could be performed by simple metal bars joined in a hinge, but over time design flourishes were added to this objects that increasingly came out when someone was entertaining guests. In the 15th and 16th centuries, Europeans were creating wooden nutcrackers carved to look like human and animal figures, with the now classic levered-jaw for breaking nuts. This progressed into the ornate soldiers and kings that we now know, but we probably only know about them because of the ballet.
The premier of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker in 1892 went over well, but it wasn’t a sensation at first. People who saw the ballet became excited about nutcrackers, but not enough to really push toy soldier designs to become the widespread favorite it is today. To really hit the big time, nutcrackers and The Nutcracker needed to be discovered by Americans, which happened at the end of World War II. Unfortunately for people who liked festively eating fresh nuts, this was also the historical equivalent of Fritz in the original story, stripping the nutcrackers of their original utility.
Demand for decorations
When American soldiers were in Germany, they discovered the nutcrackers in Christmas markets, and sent them home as gifts. Around this time, The Nutcracker ballet debuted in the United States to much success, firmly establishing nutcrackers in Americans’ minds as a Christmas tradition. There wasn’t a lot of concern about opening nutshells though, thanks to new mechanized production methods that made pre-shelled nuts quite easy to come by. The demand for nutcrackers that didn’t need to open nuts then opened the floodgates for multitudes of cheaply produced figurines that were sold for their appearance more than anything else.
These trends continue today, with most nutcrackers being sold as collector’s items or decorations. You can still get hand-carved nutcrackers that should probably handle a walnut or two, although even then you need to watch out for the “biggest and toughest” nuts, because genetic engineering has enabled bigger nuts than earlier nutcrackers were ever designed to handle. There’s no shame in skipping the shelling process of course, since even Marie from the original story was more interested in her nutcracker’s appearance (and dancing) than his ability to prepare walnuts.
Source: Why Fancy Nutcrackers Don’t Actually Crack Nuts by Mary Beth Albright, The Plate