The History Of Garden Gnomes
You just bought a garden gnome and you wonder: where and how do I install it? If you want some clues, you really need to dig into the history of this most famous garden statue. You're at the right place...
The origins of garden gnomes can be traced back to the Roman era when statuettes of minor deities could be placed in a garden as a protection against evil spirits. The name gnome however comes from alchemist theories in the Renaissance, when they were considered as creatures or spirits related to the earth. The garden gnomes as we know it was first manufactured in Germany in the late 19th century, and then mass-produced in the 1960s and 1970s. They have imposed themselves in the American suburbs at that time and are still an integral part of our collective culture nowadays.
First Sculptures of Dwarfs and Gnomes
Statues resembling garden gnomes can be found in Ancient Rome, where statues of gods were set in gardens. The minor deity Priapus, associated with gardening and care of livestock, was especially popular. He is usually represented by a little man with an enormous erection or simply an erected penis.
These statues were primarily placed to ensure a good harvest, to bring good luck and to fend off evil spirits. You might ask yourself how in the world a phallic symbol would protect from evil, but this question is it out of the scope of this inquiry...
Gnomes & Myths
Surprisingly, the origins of the gnomes lie in part in theories related to alchemy during the Renaissance.
The Swiss alchemist Paracelsus was the first to describe their physical appearance, their virtues, comportment and magical powers. He wrote that gnomes were earth elementals or nature spirits that lived unseen amongst humans.
According to Parecelsus' alchemist theories, they belonged to the earth element they came out at night to help the plants grow. Other elemental creatures were also called for: the Undines represented water, Sylphs represented air, and Salamanders represented fire. The names were mostly borrowed from Latin words, and it is thought that Gnome derives from genomos, meaning inhabitant of the earth.
Living Garden Gnomes
The undeniable appeal of having a silent, exotic helper to design and create a grand yard decor has a long history dating back again to Ancient Rome. In his villa at Tivoli, the Roman emperor Hadrian had a small lake with a structure on it fit for one person to retreat.
This idea was revived in the romantic England of the 18th century, when it became fashionable for wealthy landowners to build a hermitage and have a real hermit living on their property. But hermits could not be found at every street corner, and some landowners resolved to simply hire someone to act and live as an hermit. Conditions of the job usually included: living in a rustic dwelling, not shaving or bathing, wearing tattered clothes, pondering silently on the nature of life, giving wise advice to visitors, etc.
It is believed by some historian that this fashion was a precursor of the passion for garden gnomes that came later in England. Gordon Campbell, author of the The Hermit in the Garden: from Imperial Rome to the Garden Gnome, made an interesting case for it in 2013.
The Garden Gnome As We Know It
Many experts agree that the first modern garden gnome was designed and built by Philip Griebel in 19th century. Griebel, a German sculptor, made decorative clay animals to be displayed on lawns and in gardens. Deeply interested by the myths and legends of the gnomes, he fashioned the first red-hatted garden creature according to local folklore.
In 1872 August Heissner opened in Germany the first garden gnome factory. Even today, it remains the world's leading manufacturer of traditional garden gnomes.
Arrival in England and World Take-Over
The first step in the gnome world-wide expansion was the conquest of England. In 1847, Sir Charles Isham brought 21 garden gnomes back from Germany. They made a sensation in his rock garden, and paved the way for this new market. English gardens were at that time very popular and their style spread across Europe, with the humble garden gnome in their wake.
Soon garden gnomes became an attraction, and manufacturers seized the opportunity to produce their own versions. These adorable garden statues began to spread all over the world.
The Two World Wars: Dark Times for Gnomes
World War I and the following years were tough on the mostly German manufacturers of garden gnomes. The demand for decorative figurines was small, resources were scarce, and production plummeted.
However, things changed when the movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was released by in 1937 by Walt Disney. There was a resurgence of interest, and the manufacturers now modeled their works on Disney's characters: gnomes became more cartoon-like and innocent looking.
This revival was short lived, and when World War II came the production fell again.
The Modern Garden Gnome
The garden gnome never truly disappeared, but for a while it was not as popular and common as it used to be.
In the 1970s, humorous gnomes began to be produced. They could be inspired by celebrities or politicians and, because of the new plastic materials were mass-produced, they were also cheap and widely distributed (but in a wide variety of size). They also lost some of their artistic appeal in the process.
In 1976 the best selling book The Gnomes, written by Wil Huygen and magnificently illustrated by Rien Poortvliet, was published. Written in a natural history style, this book described the habits and lives of the gnomes. It was a huge success and rekindled a new interest in garden gnomes.
Among many other information, the book states that gnomes are long-lived (around 400 years), are seven times stronger than humans and are also more resistant.
The Traveling Gnome
Also known as gnoming, or in some circles the roaming gnome, this prank involves stealing a gnome and taking pictures of it in various picturesque and funny locations. Usually these pictures are sent to the owner, as if the gnome itself is gone on vacation. Sometimes notes are left for the owner, where the gnome supposedly explains his departure.
The French group called Garden Gnome Liberation Front (Front de Libération des Nains de Jardin) was especially dedicated to freeing gnomes from their "enslavement". Active mainly in the 1990s, they set up many practical jokes that could go well beyond gnoming. For example, in 1998 they made headlines with a staged "collective suicide" of garden gnomes, by hanging 11 of them under a bridge in northeastern France with nooses around their necks. A "suicidal note" was even left where the gnomes explained the motivations of their acts.
The Garden Gnome Liberation Front inspired many copycats. Many of the owners of the gnomes however were not amused, and the original group has been caught and fined more than once.
Even today, garden gnomes remain popular decorative objects - somewhere between cult and kitsch. Moreover, it is said that garden gnomes protect outdoor spaces and bring good luck. Isn't that reason enough to install at least one red-hat gnome in your flowerbeds?
A Love-Hate Relationship
Because the garden gnome suffered from a lack of consideration towards the end of the 20th century, it is quite regularly taken lightly and as a mark of bad taste. However, the tide is starting to turn again.
The endangered species is reborn thanks to the magic of the Internet and social networks where it thrives. With the rise of photo sharing, the garden gnome has come back to the forefront, especially since it has made a prominent appearance in movies like The Fabulous Destiny of Amelie Poulain and in some advertising campaigns.
With social media, traveling gnomes can be found in exotic places like the Eiffel Tower and the Parthenon. It might be a joke, but it is nonetheless bringing the garden gnomes back to the public attention.
Today, gnomes are mostly know as humorous rather than serious decorations. There are still some serious garden gnome collectors out there. Ultimately, it is up to you to decide if you want one at home. Some just follow the tradition, some like to create elaborate fairy gardens or fantasy worlds in which they can place their gnomes, and others add a funny gnome for a touch of humor.
Garden gnomes and popular culture
Although they aren't seen in yards as much as they used to be, garden gnomes do appear in popular culture regularly nowadays.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
A famous movie based on the traditional Grimm brothers' fairy tale, the plot begins when a vain and evil queen, out of jealousy, attempts to have Snow White (her stepdaughter) murdered. After having escaped, she finds herself in the forest where she discovers a cottage inhabited by seven eccentric dwarfs, who give her a warm welcome.
Walt Disney insisted that each dwarf be a unique and distinguishable character, and so each dwarf has a name that describes his principal quality (or shortcoming): Doc, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, Bashful, Sneezy and Dopey.
Although Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs painstakingly depicts dwarfs with stereotypical images by highlighting their disabilities, it should be noted that in the 1930s (the film was made in 1937), people with dwarfism were mostly portrayed only as circus freaks.
In short, the film was so successful that people wanted to appropriate a piece of its universe and that is how the garden gnome came back into fashion.
The Fabulous Destiny of Amélie Poulain
In The Fabulous Destiny of Amélie Poulain (a movie directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and released in 2001), the main character's father is a garden gnome aficionado. Later he will be the subject of a hoax and will receive on various occasions photos in different corners of the globe of his missing gnome.
The Lord of the Rings
Of course, there is no mention of garden gnomes in The Lord of the Rings. However, dwarves as protagonists are legion, and their representation is sufficiently romanticized and mythologized to be directly related to the fantasy universe from which garden gnomes originate and to be highlighted here as well.
In the famous trilogy, dwarves are a proud and severe race. They are physically very strong, have great endurance, especially in the ability to withstand heat and cold, and they pay little attention to heavy loads.
Dwarves can live up to two hundred and fifty years. They have the ability to learn new craft skills quickly, especially those involving metal or stone.
In this universe dwarves are described as stubborn, loyal, and sometimes greedy. They care a great deal about mining, crafts, manual labor, gold and gems, the acquisition of which often fuels the envy of the Elves.
Fortnite is a multiplayer online shooting and survival video game for up to four players. It's a world where you can fight zombie-like creatures and defend objects with fortifications that players can build.
In many challenges, you have to find, dig, bury or otherwise collect garden gnomes.
4 Fun Facts
- The tallest garden gnome in the world, built by Ron Hale, stands over 8.5m tall (28 ft). Originally built for an amusement park, the gnome is currently hosted at a farm in Saanich B.C. (Canada).
- Gnomes have been banned from the famous Royal Horticulture Society (England) since before World War I. Many think this decision is a discrimination and a snobbery. In 2013 the ban was lifted for the 100-year celebration of the event.
- The practice of taking a garden gnome without consent from someone's yard and taking it on a trip is called gnoming. Usually pictures of the gnome in famous place are sent to its owner, and the gnome itself returned after the trip (see also The Fabulous Destiny of Amélie Poulain).
- Since 2007, a Garden Gnome Walk is organized at the Inman's Park Festival in Atlanta. Participants dress in gnome clothes and wear pointy red hats in an attempt to break a Guiness World Record.
Choosing Your Garden Gnome: a few tips
If you love these adorable statuettes but don't own any, you may want to know how to choose the best ones. Here are some things to consider:
Garden gnomes can be made of many materials, including clay, wood, stone and modern materials like plastic resin or concrete. Some of these materials are more weather resistant than others. Choose a material painted with UV resistant varnishe.
The size of your statue is a very important aspect to consider. Garden gnomes range from a few inches to a few feet tall, and it's usually easy to match them to your yard.
For most outdoor spaces, a medium-sized gnome may be the ideal solution, while for larger spaces, you can simply opt for a set of them.
Garden gnomes are made to fit different themes. They can be cute, naughty, humorous, traditional, etc. The choice will most likely bring out your personality, while the gnome will create a traditional or original space.
Think about the placement of your garden gnome when you choose it. A flowerbed, pond, tree, bush or any feature of your garden can be an occasion to seize for decorative interest. The options are only limited by your imagination!
Some garden gnomes come with features and gadgets, such as solar charged lights, motion sensors, bird feeders, etc. Consider these attributes before buying a garden gnome and make sure you choose the right model for you.
Of Gnomes and Men
What a trip! The garden gnome holds no secrets for you now (unless... but that's what the comments are for, so you can share your own discoveries with us). From fairy tales to the courts of emperors and kings, you now know...
- Their founding myths.
- The first sculpture that honored their existence.
- How they arrived in Europe.
- Why they can be found in gardens today.
- Some fun facts.
- How to choose them.
And finally! Your garden gnome properly installed in your favorite outdoor space. It's lightness and bright colors brighten up your yard. Here is an object that inevitably injects its dose of history, fantasy, myth and good humor in your landscape. In short, the garden gnome will be one of your best assets to spread happiness.
A last revolution occurred: the garden gnome as interior decoration! Indeed, he can venture into the house and be part of the interior decoration! To keep him in his element, he can be matched with a glass vase containing wild flowers...
It's your turn to write your own story!