Nutcrackers have existed in one form or another for very many years. In the eighteenth century people often kept nutcrackers in their pockets, in order to munch hazelnuts at the theatre. Just as people eat popcorn today at the cinema.
In early civilizations nutshells were broken by a heavy stone. Pitted stones have been found from several thousand years ago. The oldest known nutcracker in metal dates from around the fourth century BC. A bronze Roman nutcracker dates from around the year 100 AD. A pair of brass nutcrackers can be seen in a museum in Rouen, France, dating from the thirteenth century.
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Before the First World War, nutcrackers were widely used. In particular, while servants were still readily available, even in more modest homes. Large dinner parties were often given, at the end of which nuts and wine were offered to the guests. Here nutcrackers came into their own, and are widely sought after by collectors.
Materials for nutcrackers
Nutcrackers can be found in many different materials. The most precious were made of silver to match the cutlery. However, they were not strong enough to crack hard nuts and not many survive. Whereas those made of heavier metal or wood are more easily available. During the eighteenth century and early nineteenth century they came in all shapes and sizes. Crocodiles, squirrels, dogs, as well as figurines of wooden soldiers. The latter were mostly made in Germany from the early eighteenth century, often in the form of toy soldiers. The latter became popular in the US after the Second World War when American soldiers stationed in Germany took them home as souvenirs. According to German folklore, nutcrackers bring good luck.
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Some animals and birds, particularly crows, have learnt to crack nuts by dropping them repeatedly from a height, or placing them in the middle of a road for the wheels of cars to crack.
Nutcrackers for collectors
Prices vary considerably. For instance a few hundred pounds for some early models. While £3,000 is the estimated price of a barrel-shaped eighteenth century pocket fruitwood screw action nutcracker. £6,000 is the estimate for a rare eighteenth century wooden lever-action nutcracker. Early nutcrackers of all kinds can, of course, be found online or in antique markets.