Nutcracker dolls go on display in many American homes each Christmas, then they get packed away.
But it’s a holiday wonderland year-round in the house of Hayden resident C.J. Davis, who keeps her massive collection of nutcrackers out permanently in an upstairs room. There’s a lot of history there, and dusting, among the figures tucked neatly on shelves.
“There are between 2,000 and 3,000 nutcrackers; I’d say about 2,800 would be about right,” Davis said. She believes she has the world’s second-largest collection.
Davis has some credentials to back that claim. She served about 18 years on the Leavenworth Nutcracker Museum board and continues as a director emeritus. The Leavenworth facility has the globe’s largest nutcracker collection of between 7,000 and 9,000 pieces, she said.
Davis also has ties to the Nutcracker Collectors Club, and its members know who has what, she said.
“The museum has the world’s largest; that was in the Guinness Book of Records as of last year. There is another nutcracker collector, I think in Germany. He has acquired a new collection, but they’re mostly duplicates. Duplicates cannot be counted.
Her dad, Hal Davis, started it all during the 1950s. After his death in 1989, she carried on the tradition of collecting, although today Davis no longer seeks additional pieces.
“This collection is eventually going to join that (Leavenworth) collection; that was my father’s wishes.”
Most nutcrackers in her collection have European origins – crafted in Austria, Italy and mainly Germany, including those from the world-renowned Christian Steinbach, who signed all of hers.
Early on, more functional nutcrackers were made of stone, metal and wood. They were often kept in kitchens with a bowl of nuts or hung on fences in orchards, said Davis, who has multiple antique handheld ones with heads of figures such cats, monkeys and gnomes.
Davis attributes the holiday popularity of nutcrackers in the United States to the success of “The Nutcracker” ballet and its music by Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky. The ballet centers on a family’s Christmas Eve celebration and a young girl’s toy nutcracker coming to life.
By the 1960s, more U.S. dance companies were performing the show, and it grew into an established holiday tradition in cities across the nation.
What most people think of today, the standing wooden nutcracker, was first made in the Ore Mountain region of eastern Germany in the early 19th century. Beyond the simple function to crack open the shells of pecans and walnuts, decorative wooden nutcrackers were elaborately painted, costumed and often whiskered to represent soldiers, noble kings and other characters.
Davis’ collection includes pieces by Wilhelm Füchtner, considered the father of nutcracker toys. Around 1870, Füchtner created the first commercial production using the lathe. Davis also has some from another famous German maker, Christian Ulbricht, from a family company also first established in the Erzgebirge region of Germany. His father, Otto, began the craft.
Most of Davis’ pieces are small- to regular-sized, but she has three nutcrackers that stand tall, including a soldier that is 6 feet tall made for her dad by the sculptor Karl Rappl of Oberammergau, Germany.
Nutcrackers first became popular in the U.S. when American soldiers returned home from Germany and brought them back as souvenirs, Davis said. She thinks that tradition began as early as around World War I and continued as U.S. soldiers returned to the region at the end of World War II.
“American soldiers would buy these starting in World War I and bring them back, and then German artists started finding out that the American people liked them,” she said. “They were doing some of them as our American presidents, Disney characters; they had our number.
“They were making nutcrackers to appease the American buyer. I have all the American presidents up here,” Davis said on a tour of her collector room. “They took our fairy tales, Merlin, all the biblical characters, anything that the American people would buy. Back on this side, we have the ‘Wizard of Oz’ series.”
Nutcrackers were crafted in other forms – also found in Davis’ home: Santas, snowmen, book and film representations, historic figures and even the “The Nutcracker” characters.
Davis also can show off a primitive nutting stone that’s likely close to 2,000 years old. The oldest known metal nutcracker dates to the third or fourth century B.C. and is shown in a museum in Italy, says the Leavenworth Nutcracker Museum website. The museum displays a bronze Roman nutcracker dated between 200 B.C. and 200 A.D.
Before COVID-19, Davis did multiple presentations a day during Christmas time at schools and assisted-living facilities. Although that’s slowed, she’s still happy to share the history.
“At presentations, I bring one nutcracker of each of the makers like one Steinbach, an Ulbricht and one of the handheld ones. I bring one that has a music box. I try to bring one of each maker.”
Her favorite maker is Steinbach, whose works cover an entire wall in her nutcracker room.
“You can see by the way they make them with the clothing and everything. They’re so put together, so well-made,” she said of his creations. “I used to go to signings with him in Leavenworth. We’ve since lost him.”
Any beginning collector should start with four pieces, including a king to watch over everything and a soldier to guard the king, Davis said. The third should be a chimney sweep, which is lucky in German culture, and the fourth is a musician such as a drummer to draw attention to the collection.
While relishing the stories each piece tells, Davis shared a bit of Christmas trivia – there’s a difference between American-made nutcrackers versus German ones.
“American artists don’t show the teeth in nutcrackers, and German artists always do, because of an old saying that they’re like an old trusty dog,” she explained. “They come out at night and all say, ‘Hail to thee,’ to protect their owner. It’s German folklore specific to the nutcracker.”
That piece of lore can have its drawbacks, though.
“It gets very noisy here at midnight,” Davis said.
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