One of Connecticut’s many nicknames is the “Nutmeg State,” making those who live here “Nutmeggers,” but the origin of the name is something of a mystery.
Nutmegs are the seeds of an evergreen tree native to the Spice Islands of the East Indies. In the West, nutmeg has been used to flavor food and make medicine since Medieval times or earlier. The Portuguese, Dutch, and English all fought for control of the spice trade from the 1400s to the 1600s, but in the early 1800s, the English transplanted nutmegs to other parts of the world—Grenada and Zanzibar—breaking earlier nutmeg monopolies.
Connecticut merchants imported nutmegs during the colonial era, and it was widely used in early American cuisine. This may have been the origin of the nickname. Another theory is that unscrupulous Yankee peddlers, who sold Connecticut products across the nation, also sold fake, wooden nutmegs to unsuspecting buyers. This is why the term “wooden nutmeg” has come to mean a fraud. In 1833, Thomas Hamilton wrote critically of these entrepreneurial salesmen: “The whole race of Yankee peddlers … are proverbial for dishonesty. These go forth annually in thousands to lie, cog, cheat, swindle, in short, to get possession of their neighbour’s property, in any manner . . .” (Men and Manners in Connecticut).
An alternative story is that unknowing purchasers were not always aware that the nutmegs had to be grated to produce the powdered spice, not cracked like a walnut. Their inability to crack open the hard seed may have caused them to think they had been cheated and sold useless “wooden” nutmegs.
Regardless of the origin of the name, the nutmeg is still a well-known symbol of the state, and has appeared on countless Connecticut souvenirs through the years.