A Brief History of Garden Gnomes

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Note: This article was originally published in May 2009. We're currently switching to a new hosting provider, and it's a messy process. So while we wait for the "OK, you can start posting again" note from the server migration people, we'll be putting up a few stories you may have missed the first time around.

At the risk of accidentally sounding biblical, we regret to report that gnomes have been banished from the garden. To be a bit more specific, gnome figurines, those whimsical, pointy-hatted denizens of home gardens and front lawns, have been banished from gardens entering England's famed Royal Horticultural Society Chelsea Flower Show, which took place this past weekend [note: in 2009] during a riot of mostly good weather.

The decree has actually been in place for years, but it's only been this year that the rule was challenged and indeed, openly defied. The worst of it for Chelsea Flower Show administrators was that the offending gnome was introduced by a traitor in their own midst. Jekka McVicar, one of Britain's leading organic growers, a member of the Royal Horticultural Society's ruling council, and herself a 13-time Chelsea gold medalist, hid her own garden mascot, a fisherman by the name of Borage, in the foliage of her Grand Pavilion garden. Oh, the shame.

McVicar defended her gnome, claiming that "gardening can be too serious," and that it's important to have fun, but the RHS wouldn't budge and said that the gnome had to be gone by the open of judging on Thursday. Borage, McVicar says, is going underground, to sow the seeds of his rebellion from below. It's positively Miltonian.

Persona nongrata status at the old Chelsea Flower Show aside, gnomes are fascinating little creatures. We've dug up a little history on the popular garden accessory.

The Common Garden Gnome

Garden gnomes, believe it or not, are not the product of a 20th century lapse in good taste, as their garishly colored clothing and smiling countenances may indicate, but rather an 19th century one.

In the second half of the 1800s, German sculptor and potter Phillip Griebel started a business molding ceramic into lifelike busts of animals, a fashionable home and garden decoration at the time. Inspired by the gnome myths of his home (Gräfenroda, Thuringia), he began fashioning small, pointy-hatted ceramic gnomes for gardens; the first gnome went to market in Leipzig in 1884 and was an instant success.

Production was halted during World War II, and following the fall of the Nazis, garden gnomes were banned briefly as the German Democratic Republic rose to power in East Germany. Still, the gnomes managed to pull through and Griebel's garden gnome dynasty exists even now, although in a much diminished capacity, owing to the cheap labor and even cheaper materials coming out of China and Eastern European markets.

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Nowadays, garden gnomes can be found in a wide variety of attitudes and poses: Reclining on one elbow, smoking a pipe; fishing with a wee fishing rod; standing proudly, hands on hips; pushing a wheelbarrow; or holding open his robes to reveal his naughty bits.

One can also buy garden gnomes dressed as police officers, although you may want to think twice after the somewhat draconian treatment meted out to Gordon MacKillip, a Cornwall, England man who was threatened with arrest over his police gnome in 2006. According to reports, police told MacKillop, whose solar-powered gnome was dressed in police blues and accompanied by a miniature ceramic Alsatian dog, that his neighbors were complaining about the gnome. MacKillop was served with notice under the Protection From Harassment Act 1997, for "placing a garden gnome with intent to cause harassment."

The Well-Traveled Gnome

The common garden gnome's adorable tackiness and extreme portability has also inspired the popular prank, Gnome Roaming or Gnome-napping. The premise is simple: A neighborhood garden gnome is stolen and sent on adventures. The gnome-nappers usually photograph the gnome's exploits along the way or send postcards to the befuddled gnome owner, before returning the gnome, often with his new photo album of vacation shots, to his garden home. Hilarity ensues.

Despite the resurgence of the prank in recent years, owing to the popularity of the 2001 film Amelie, where the heroine inspires her quiet father to travel by stealing his gnome and sending him on trips with a flight attendant friend, and the Travelocity Roaming Gnome, the prank is at least more than 20 years old. According to urban legends expert David Emry, the first documented case of gnome-napping took place in the mid-1980s, when an Australian family's gnome was taken from their front yard. A few days later, the family received a postcard from the gnome, claiming he was vacationing in Queensland. He returned, two weeks after he went missing, sporting a wicked tan (actually a coating of brown shoe polish).

Of course, there's a sinister side to gnome-napping: In the past few years, people have been arrested for possession of stolen gnomes, and the gnomes even have their own extremist supporters, the Front de Libération des Nains de Jardin or the Garden Gnome Liberation Front. The Front is a French group that claims to have "liberated thousands" of garden gnomes since 1997 "“ they generally steal the gnomes en masse and then "release" them into the wild. Sometimes more creepily, these liberators, who are typically pictured wearing terrorist/freedom fighter-style balaclavas, set the gnomes up on the steps of a church or, even weirder, hanging by their necks from a bridge. These gnomes don't make it home.

Any good gnome stories out there? Anybody have a favorite gnome, or any strong opinions about gnomes in general?

March 21, 2011 - 5:00pm
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