A Brief History of Garden Gnomes

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iStock

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 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.

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?

When the French Village of Pont-Saint-Esprit Went Temporarily Mad

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iStock

On August 15, 1951, dozens of people became terribly ill in Pont-Saint-Esprit, a quaint commune in the south of France. In the days that followed, hundreds more joined them. They complained of nausea and stomach pain, weak blood pressure and faint pulses, cold sweats and low temperatures. Worst of all, everybody had insomnia and smelled. “A state of giddiness persisted accompanied by abundant sweating and a disagreeable odour,” reported the British Medical Journal [PDF]. People would compare the stench to the fragrance of dead mice.

For hundreds of victims, that’s where the inexplicable mass illness stopped. For others, it was only the beginning. Dozens upon dozens of people began experiencing nightmarish hallucinations.

The town became gripped in pandemonium. A little girl screamed as she was chased by man-eating tigers. A woman sobbed about how her children had been ground into sausages. A large man fended off terrific beasts by smashing his furniture. A husband and wife ran around, chasing each other with knives. Even the local animals had gone mad: A dog chewed on stones until its teeth chipped away. Ducks began marching like penguins.

Everywhere, people ran wildly as they tried to avoid imaginary flames. One man, convinced that red snakes were devouring his brain, jumped out of a window. Another reportedly leapt from a window, broke both legs, stood up, and continued running.

Outside, a local postal worker complained that he was shrinking. A person sprinted down the lane, claiming he was being chased by “bandits with donkey ears.” Near the Rhône river, a man—convinced that he was a circus tightrope walker—attempted to balance his way across the cables of a suspension bridge. Another tried to jump into the river, only to be saved by friends. “I am dead and my head is made of copper and I have snakes in my stomach and they are burning me!” he yelled [PDF].

(Not everybody was having a bad experience. Some people, according to The New York Times, “heard heavenly choruses, saw brilliant colors … the world looked beautiful to them.” It was an especially productive experience for the head of the local farmers' co-op, who began writing hundreds upon hundreds of pages of luminous poetry.)

But overall, the scene was apocalyptic. “I have seen healthy men and women suddenly become terrorized, ripping their bed sheets, hiding themselves beneath their blankets to escape hallucinations,” the mayor of Pont-Saint-Esprit, Albert Hébrard, said. Asylums were filled with people wrapped in straitjackets and tied to beds. According to the British Medical Journal, “Every attempt at restraint increased the agitation.”

By the time the mass illness had subsided, approximately 300 people had been in some way affected. At least four died. In the immediate aftermath, the outbreak was blamed on … bread [PDF].

The summer of 1951 was especially wet, and ergot fungi grew all over the country's rye fields. Tainted grains were sourced back to the Roch Briand bakery, where a miller had used fungus-contaminated flour, causing widespread poisoning. The last time ergotism—or what's colorfully known as Saint Anthony’s Fire—had reportedly struck France, it was 1816.

Today, ergot poisoning remains the most commonly accepted explanation of what happened in Pont-Saint-Esprit, though there have been competing theories. Just weeks after the incident, the president of France’s millers’ union, Pierre Jacob, refused to acknowledge the ergot explanation, Reuters reported. Jacob argued that ergot was always present in French flour and, therefore, could not be responsible. To prove his point, he offered to eat ergot-tainted bread in front of a group of experts [PDF]. (There's no record of whether he actually completed the stunt.)

Other theories blamed mercury, fungicide, and various other types of fungus. Some people claimed it was the water used to make the bread, and not the grain, that had been infected.

And, of course, there are conspiracy theories.

In 2009, writer Hank P. Albarelli Jr. claimed that he found a fishy document belonging to the CIA. It contained this label: “Re: Pont-Saint-Esprit and F. Olson Files. SO Span/France Operation file, inclusive Olson. Intel files. Hand carry to Belin—tell him to see to it that these are buried.”

According to the BBC, Frank Olson was a CIA scientist researching LSD; David Belin was executive director of the White House commission investigating the CIA's abuses. Were these men connected to the Pont-Saint-Esprit poisoning? Was it some kind of hidden CIA LSD experiment? Or was the CIA—which was certainly studying psychoactive substances at the time—simply curious about what had happened in southern France?

Steven L. Kaplan, a bread historian at Cornell University, who wrote extensively about the fallout from the outbreak in a French-language tome titled The Cursed Bread, doesn’t buy into the CIA conspiracy theory. LSD, he says, was an unlikely culprit; the symptoms suffered by residents don't match those caused by the hallucinogen. But he’s not convinced that ergot was the cause, either.

Which raises the question: If not ergot or LSD, then what happened in Pont-Saint-Esprit in the summer of 1951?

5 Weird 1960s Covers for Classic Novels

Chaloner Woods/Getty Images
Chaloner Woods/Getty Images

There are a lot of weird and bad book covers for the classics out there, and the Internet has delighted in chronicling them.

Some are designed to mimic the look of current blockbusters, like these Twilight-style covers for novels by Jane Austen and the Brontës. Others rely on bad stock photos and inept Photoshopping for classic works that have crossed into the public domain, from The Scarlet Pimpernel to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

The subset of covers for 1960s paperbacks is rich with particularly hideous findings, mostly from Penguin and Signet Classics. Shockingly, they're not made by untalented people who are bad at Photoshop. These covers were drawn by established, objectively talented, and sometimes famous illustrators like graphic design legend Milton Glaser. They were purposely executed in unorthodox, interpretive styles. But although they may be done by respected artists, their aesthetic value remains questionable. Take a look at some of the strangest below.

1. THE GREAT GATSBY BY F. SCOTT FITZGERALD // 1962

The Great Gatsby cover by John Sewell
Courtesy of Setana Books

In the baffling jacket for this Jazz Age classic, a man’s face is stretched bizarrely sideways. He appears to be wearing thick eyeliner and has some serious wrinkles around his eyes. But, let's back up for a minute: Who is this supposed to be? Surely not the title character; Gatsby doesn’t have a bald patch or a unibrow. One Twitter user who collects Gatsby editions considers this specimen to be the "oddest" one he owns.

The artist, John Sewell, was a British graphic designer working in the '60s whose print covers usually involved colored paper cut-outs. He did a cover in a similar style for F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night, but that one is a little less weird.

2. OUR MUTUAL FRIEND BY CHARLES DICKENS // 1964

cover of Our Mutual Friend by Seymour Chwast
Courtesy of swallace99, Flickr.

The artist here is Seymour Chwast, who, along with Milton Glaser, co-founded the postmodern collective Push Pin Studios in 1954. The Push Pin style "reject[s] tradition in favor of reinvigorated interpretations of historical styles," as their website states.

And yet, the people on this cover are hideous. The eyebrows on Our Mutual Friend's Gaffer Hexam (the man in the white shirt) are at a sharp 45-degree angle, a trait rarely found in nature. Lizzie Hexam, who’s supposed to be beautiful, also looks pretty wretched.

According to the artist's biography on the Seymour Chwast Archive, "Each of his imaginary characters (even portraits of real individuals) have similar facial features—round lips, slits for eyes, bulbous noses. They never scowl, yet they are not cute." That's for sure. A quick browse through his work shows that naturalism was never his goal.

3. ADAM BEDE BY GEORGE ELIOT // 1961

Adam Bede cover by James Hill
Courtesy of swallace99, Flickr

Why is Adam Bede's hand bigger than his face? And his arm bigger than his waist? What would George Eliot think?

This one is by James Hill, the first Canadian to become a member of the American Illustrators Association. His work ranged from lurid, pulpy book covers to treatments for classics like this one to a series of paintings inspired by Anne of Green Gables.

4. CRIME AND PUNISHMENT BY FYODOR DOSTOYEVSKY // 1968

Crime and Punishment cover

Courtesy of Felt Books

The 1960s produced many psychedelic book covers, and this style spilled over into reprints of the classics. On this Dostoyevsky opus, a guy's face is replaced by a groovy rainbow with a figure in a coffin inside. While the artist is unknown, the rainbow design echoes the style of several graphic designers of the 1960s.

5. HARD TIMES BY CHARLES DICKENS // 1961

Hard Times cover
Courtesy of ElwoodAnd Eloise, Etsy

This cover for Charles Dickens's grim tale of Victorian inequality was designed by Milton Glaser, Seymour Chwast's partner in Push Pin Studios. Glaser also designed the I Love New York logo and a Bob Dylan poster that depicts the singer with a rainbow 'fro. A versatile artist, his work includes logos, posters, interior design, magazine illustrations, and, of course, book covers. But here, the heavy cross-hatching on the figures' faces, hair, and clothes nudges them into werewolf territory. The psychedelic winged horse seems like a nod to the Summer of Love, but a tavern called the Pegasus's Arms actually figures prominently in the book.

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