You've seen them in many fashionable gardens throughout your life… those small, chubby, mischievous-looking outdoor statues posing and pursuing various life activities like fishing, napping or even smoking a pipe. But what do you know about them really? Who are they? What is the history of the garden gnome? And most importantly, why would you want one, or more than one, on your front lawn? In this guide, I will give you answers to all these questions. You will know more about garden gnomes than you ever thought was possible!
Garden Gnome History
Garden gnomes (or lawn gnomes) are pint-sized statues of a small, human-like creature (usually male), measuring about 1 -2 feet, typically wearing a tall, pointy, red hat and blue pants. This pointy hat is a sign and source of their magical powers. In the mist of outdoor garden fountains, water pouring out of garden fountains, pumping the elixir of life, gnomes can be found bathing in the catch basins of the fountains of Europe. Dating back to 19th Century Germany, a country with a deep interest in all things mythical, these cheery, colorful, and slightly naughty critters, were used look after the garden and protect property during the night, offer good luck and ward off evil. Farmers thought of the gnome as good luck charms, keeping their fields free from all kinds of pests – both the people and bug kind. Garden gnomes are endearing, add a little pizazz and address a connection to the days of yesteryear. Today garden gnomes are still extremely popular and are seen on lawns and gardens all over the world, and it appears this sort of appeal will continue for years to come.
Though they date back to the 1600's in Europe, where garden statuary was prevalent especially with the upper class, these statues were brought to the mainstream by a wine lover named Sir Charles Isham who took them from Germany to his English homeland in 1847. He decorated his home and lawn with 21 terra cotta garden gnomes and these statues created a huge sensation in the UK. Unfortunately, only 1 garden statue remains today called "Lampy". It is still on display at Isham's home, Lampert Hall, and is insured for around 1 million pounds (approximately $1.3). Known as "gartenzwerge" (garden dwarfs in German), they eventually became known as gnomes, meaning "earth dweller", inspired by the Greek word 'genomo'.
Grafenroda, Germany, a region known for its ceramic products, became associated with garden gnomes a few decades after Sir Isham's voyage. The biggest statue industry players at the time were August Heissner and Philip Griebel, with the latter still providing the service of garden gnomes production today. Initially, Griebel specialized primarily in decorative animal statues made of terracotta, however, due to the great local popularity of magical creatures with the power of meditation, the company turned to the design and production of garden gnome products instead. The gnomes were thought of as "earth elementals" which is why they are placed in gardens. They lived under the ground during the daylight hours where they looked after their precious treasures and would only come out at night to play. The belief is that if they were caught during the day, they would turn into a stone statue – which is why they are depicted as statues. It is mainly because of Heissman and Griebel's dedication and customer service to these long-bearded do-gooders that the fascination with them spread throughout the rest of Germany, France, and England, where the garden was a well-established hobby.
The world wars did unfortunately stop all production of the garden gnome in Germany which is when the plastic gnome made its first appearance in the 1960s. This is also when the theme and design of the gnome statue became almost cartoonish in nature. A sign things were changing for these garden statues. The true essence of the gnome was sort of lost, especially when companies in Poland and the Czech Republic began mass-producing cheap look-alike items resembling the Germanic gnomes. Lucky for all of us garden gnome lovers, there are still manufacturers who address our desire for these items, offering high-end design, both traditional and modern gnomes (at a good price) to remind us why we love these products so much.
Different Types of Garden Gnomes
Like everything else, garden gnomes come in a variety of styles, designs and colors, therefore adding life and even amusement to your garden area. The very first garden gnomes produced in Germany were made from clay (later terra cotta) and were somewhat costly, differing greatly from the plastic/plaster ones we see today. The fact that they are produced in more economical materials allows them to have a lower price tag and be more durable than other garden décor. The manufacturing of the clay and terra cotta gnomes from earlier days was long, as it had to be poured into molds and painted– a long process. Once the gnome was removed from the mold, it had to dry and was fired in a kiln until it hardened completely. When it had cooled down, it was rinsed in the wall fountain and it was carefully painted to the desired level… and sent off on its life journey to service the world.
Another advantage of plastic over other materials is that it can be easily molded into many shapes – whatever shape you choose. Think about it – you can make these little guys in any form you want. If you are a sports fanatic, you can have one throwing a football, holding a tennis racquet or racing a go-cart. They can be wearing your favorite sports team colors or even be posing with the winning Super Bowl trophy! These days you can even find gnomes in sports bars where football games are shown. What if you are a music enthusiast? Well then, why not a rapper gnome or a cowboy boot and hat-wearing gnome? The gnome world is your oyster...shop away!
The Many Looks of Garden Gnomes
Gnomes are generally depicted with long, white beards, red hats and blue pants, or at least simple style clothing. No haute-couture here. Though female garden gnomes were quite rare, they have begun to show up more and more on lawns throughout the years. They are usually seen with long hair, the same style of clothing and hat. Some even say they resemble witches!
Garden gnomes are always up to something and you can see this by the different poses, colorful costumes, and expressions they are wearing. Whether they are chugging beer, sunbathing, or mooning you (yes, mooning gnomes exist), they will delight you. The design range of the statues varies from classic to kitchy; there is truly something for everyone. And though this differs from the original intent of the outdoor garden gnome, if they make you smile and laugh, they have provided the service they were intended to provide.
Gnomes in Popular Culture
A practice that has become a particular tradition in the gnome world is called "gnome - napping". It involves thieving someone's gnome, sending it or taking it with you on various trips, all while taking photos, then sending these pictures back to the owner. The thief can either choose to send the gnome back or not....unharmed of course. This trend began back in the mid 80's in Australia with the first-ever known gnome - napping. It then took off with the Academy Award-nominated French movie from 2001 called Amelie, where one of the sub-themes follows an internationally traveling gnome. The statue is pictured next to the biggest landmarks in the world having a grand ole time. In 2011, an animation called 'Gnomeo & Juliet was released which featured garden gnomes playing the parts of Romeo and Juliet of the classic Shakespearean tale, followed by another animated gnome film in 2018, Sherlock Gnomes.
Most notably, however, was the "Roaming Gnome" ad campaign launched by the travel website, Travelocity, called "Roaming Gnome". In the ad, a kidnapped gnome travels the world, and photos of his international escapades are sent back. There was even a website where you could keep track of his movements.
In the real world of hard-core gardeners, gnomes have become somewhat disliked because of the viewpoint that they take away from the garden design and are generally gaudy. The gnome paid the ultimate price when it was banned from the famous UK Chelsea Flower Show for a 19-year time span. Gnomophiles (what gnome enthusiasts call themselves) rebelled against this ban accusing the Royal Horticultural Society of arrogance, as garden gnomes are a sign of the working people and suburban gardeners. The ban was lifted in 2013 as a sign of peace and to mark 100 years of the show.
Tips for Putting in a Garden Gnome
There are no rules when it comes to putting a garden gnome in your yard or garden. The trick is to forget everything you know about garden etiquette and just embrace the whimsical nature and fun of these sweet little guys.
When it comes to placement, the options are endless. Gnomes are the best welcomers there are, so place them along garden paths or borders so they can meet and greet guests. Put them near a water fountain so they can enjoy the sounds of trickling water, amongst bushes and flower clusters where they can hide and pop up when your visitor least expects it, or somewhere that is void of plants to fill in any empty space. But don't fret too much about where to place them as they like to move around.
If you think gnomes are just for outdoor gardens and yards, you couldn't be more wrong. They can live anywhere; on patios, porches, or even inside your home. They are a wonderful addition to your fireplace, bath, or even bedroom. Some have even been spotted sitting securely on tree branches overlooking your home ready to alert you of any invaders. And for those who just can't shop for just 1 or 2, a gnome collection is the answer. Garden gnomes love company. So fill your cart!