This week’s artifact dates to near the turn of the 20th Century, and was handy to have around.

Known as a “knee warmer,” the device was placed over the top of the thigh, with a nut placed on top of the pedestal. The user would then strike the nut with a wooden hammer, cracking open the shell and exposing the meat.

Prior to the 1930s, modern grocery stores didn’t exist, and pre-packed nutmeats were unheard of. Most folks gathered nuts from their own trees or from public spaces where nutting was allowed, and then cracked them at home. The nut meats would be used for baking and cooking, or as a handy snack.

There are about as many versions of nutcrackers as there are types of nuts, but they break down into four basic types: screw, lever, plier and percussion. They all act on the same basic principal: using pressure to crack the shell open and allowing access to the meat inside. The type of nutcracker you used was related to the type of nut you were trying to crack.

Native American peoples in the area had special “nutting stones,” which consisted of a stone anvil that might have depressions for setting the nuts in, and a hammer stone they would use to crack the shells with. They fell out of favor with the advent of more modern nutcrackers that arrived along with the white settlers.

Families in the early days of Des Moines County would set out on nutting expeditions in the fall to the woodlot to gather nuts. Folks usually knew where the best nutting places were, and when each species was at its peak, so there would have been multiple outings throughout the year.

Commonly grown nuts in the area include black walnuts, beech nuts, pecans, hickory nuts, hazelnuts, buckeyes, acorns, butternuts, and hybrids of pecans and hickory among others. Families would have had tasty recipes for using the nuts, some of which have become part of traditional holiday treats. Others would be used in every day recipes, providing essential nutrients as well as flavor.

The tradition of nutting long has fallen by the wayside, with the advent of pre-packaged nuts that are readily available at your local mega-mart. Fortunately, though, there is still a use for nutcrackers.

This particular artifact is not on display, but we do have nutting stones out in our 19th Century gallery for public viewing. Want to see them? Come on down to the Heritage Center Museum at 501 N. Fourth St.

“Out of the Attic” features artifacts from the collection of the Des Moines County Historical Society. For more information, to ask questions or to offer comments or suggestions, call (319) 752-7449 or email dmchs@dmchs.org.