It all started with the Mouse King.
Kenn Whiteman was on a trip to Edmonton when he spotted a nutcracker in a store. Whiskered, standing around two feet tall and sporting a cape, crown and sword, the detail of the traditional Christmas decoration drew Whiteman’s eye and he brought it home.
Now, 45 years later, his collection of nutcrackers numbers 263, and takes up the dining room, living room and front entrance table of his Port Alberni home.
Nutcrackers were historically just that: implements used to crack the hard shells of nuts. The Leavenworth Nutcracker Museum has a bronze Roman nutcracker from between 200 B.C. and 200 A.D. The first wooden nutcrackers carved in the likeness of humans or animals originated in several European countries in the 18th and 19th centuries. Wilhelm Fuchner from Germany created the first commercial nutcracker in 1872. He is known as “the father of the Nutcracker.”
Although the mouths work on each of Whiteman’s nutcrackers, most of them are decorative and not used to crack shelled nuts. “Each one is like a work of art,” he said. He pulled up a Noah’s Ark nutcracker complete with paired animals around the base as an example. It is one of his favourites, he admitted, along with a ringmaster and a surfer.
“When you look at them there’s so much detail.”
Most of the nutcrackers in Whiteman’s collection were made in China. He bought many of them from different stores throughout the years.
“We were down in Leavenworth, Washington. I tell you, the nutcrackers down there— I had to leave, I couldn’t stand it. There were literally thousands of them. They had Batman, Spiderman…I could just see my paycheques going out the window,” he related.
Some of them have dates on the bottom so he knows when he picked them up. Some of them are gifts from friends who brought them back from their own travels, including one that came from Germany.
Some of the nutcrackers are musical, some are on rockers, sleds or rollers. Some are only a few inches tall, and one solid wood nutcracker is almost as tall as Whiteman. Nutcracker themes range from the three wise men to RCMP officers, a Scottish bagpiper, Henry VIII, stylish ladies and 18-inch-tall characters from the Wizard of Oz—all but the lion, which Whiteman could never find. “Whenever I’m at garage sales or in antique shops I’m always looking to finish off some of the collections.
“There are quite a few hockey players kicking around,” he said. There are also some doubles, purchased inadvertently: with such a large collection he’s forgotten a few, he admitted.
It has been a few years since Whiteman has had the whole collection out at once: he has rotated them in his Christmas display over the past few years.
“I’ve seen them all, but you look at them again and think, ‘they’re so nice,’” Whiteman’s wife Linda said, going through the hundred or so nutcrackers filling her dining room table, sideboard and floor.
The magic and fantasy of the nutcracker was first featured in an 1816 German story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, by E.T.A. Hoffmann. “At the same time that he was doing that, Alexandre Dumas was in France and he was working on a nutcracker theme,” Whiteman said. Dumas adapted Hoffmann’s darker fairytale into a children’s fantasy.
“Then Tchaikovsky in the 19th century wrote the famous ballet, The Nutcracker. It’s been going on for 200 years, nutcrackers. Then in 1950 the nutcracker at Christmas became an American tradition.”
After enjoying his collection for 45 years—and this year giving himself a hernia lifting the many plastic tubs of nutcrackers from their storage space—Whiteman says it’s time to pass them on to someone else.
The Whitemans are hoping someone will purchase the nutrackers as a set and put them on display somewhere. “Maybe to a hotel or a lodge,” said Linda. “…McLean Mill would be a great place.”
Whiteman hadn’t decided on how much the collection is worth, but said he’s “easily” spent $10,000 on nutcrackers over the years.
Whiteman said he will hang onto a few of the nutcrackers that have sentimental meaning. Now he’s ready to pass on the magic and wonder to someone else.