Jennifer Wilber works as an ESL instructor, substitute teacher, and freelance writer. She holds a B.A. in Creative Writing and English.
Garden Gnomes Through Time
If you have a garden or front yard, you are likely familiar with the popular garden ornament known as the “garden gnome.” Though you may have never considered the origins of these whimsical little tchotchkes, these miniature statues have a long and mysterious history. Garden gnomes as we know them today have only been manufactured in the last two centuries, but earlier versions of these garden guardians have been livening up gardens for hundreds of years.
What are Gnomes?
Gnomes are the mythical creatures on which these popular lawn ornaments are based. They were first conceived of by the alchemist Paracelsus in the 16th century. Paracelsus believed that spirits existed who lived among humans. He called these spirits “elementals” or nature spirits. Paracelsus believed that there were four types of elementals, each corresponding to a specific classical element. There were air elementals called sylphs, fire elementals called salamanders, water elementals called undines, and, of course, earth elementals called gnomes. Gnomes, supposedly, would come out at night to help plants in human gardens grow.
According to Paracelsus, gnomes are “two spans high, very reluctant to interact with humans, and able to move through solid earth as easily as humans move through air.” Gnomes have since appeared in folklore, myths, and stories from around the world. Gnomes may possess various forms of magical powers, depending on the author’s interpretation of the creatures.
Early Gnome-esque Statuary
The earliest statuary forerunners of the modern garden gnome are arguable those found in the gardens of ancient Rome. In ancient Rome, wealthy landowners would place statues of their gods in their sprawling gardens. The main god depicted in this way was Priapus, a minor a minor fertility god who was thought to be a protector of livestock, fruit plants, gardens, and male genitalia. These statues, the Romans thought, would protect the garden from evil spirits, bring good fortune, and pave the way for a prosperous future.
During the renaissance period, the wealthy often places stone statues called “grotesques” in their gardens to bring good fortune. As the name suggests, these figurines were made to be purposely ugly and disfigured-looking. These statues were typically garishly painted and stood 1-meter tall figurine. A popular type of these figurines were called “gobbi,” which means “hunchback” in Italian.
By the late 1700s, small statues known as “house dwarves” became popular household decorations in Germany and Switzerland. These figurines were generally made of wood or porcelain and looked similar to the modern garden gnome. In Germany, these statues became associated with folktales and superstitions surrounding the "little folk" or dwarves that many people believed helped humans in the mines, on the farm, and around the home.
The First True Garden Gnome
A German sculptor from the town of Grafenroda named Phillip Griebel is credited for creating the very first “true” garden gnome in the 19th Century, which featured the iconic red gnome hat that we are familiar with today. Griebel began his sculpting career making and selling terracotta busts of animals. He eventually expanded his business to making statues of miniature mythical creatures known as gnomes, as the locals believed that these beings helped them in their gardens. Perhaps local gardeners believed the ceramic statues would attract the real thing. With or without real-life gnomes, many believed that these statues would protect gardens and homes from evil spirits or other dangers.
The popularity of garden gnomes quickly spread from Germany to France, Poland, and England. English explorer Sir Charles Isham can be credited with helping Griebel’s garden gnomes become popular all over Europe. In 1847, Isham purchased 21 terracotta garden gnomes from Griebel and brought them back home to England. One of these garden gnomes, known as “Lampy,” still survives.
Soon, Griebel’s gnomes became so popular that he stopped making other types of garden statues, specializing in only his garden gnomes. Though there were now other manufacturers creating similar gnome garden statues, Griebel’s business continued to expand.
Rising and Falling Popularity in the 20th Century
Garden gnomes eventually began to fall in popularity during World War I, due to the troubling and uncertain times. Eventually, however, garden gnomes began to regain some of their popularity when Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs aired in the 1930s, due to the Dwarves’ physical similarities to garden gnomes. As the economy began to recover, more working-class families were able to make unnecessary purchases, such as garden ornaments.
Unsurprisingly, the popularity of garden gnomes began to fade once more during World War II. Many manufacturers had to cease production of the garden statues during this time.
Garden gnomes started gaining popularity once more in the 1970s, when manufacturers began to introduce more humorous designs for their garden gnome statues. Modern gnomes are now mass-produced, and many are now made from plastic. The newer mass-produced gnomes tend to be of lower quality than the original handmade garden gnomes.
The figurines gained more notoriety in the 1990s due to the “traveling gnome” prank, in which the prankster would steal a garden gnome, then send the owner photos of the gnome from various vacation destinations before eventually returning it.
Despite rising and falling popularity over several decades, the Griebel is still producing their terracotta garden gnomes in Germany.
Gnome Place Like Home
Garden gnomes are still a staple of modern gardens and lawns today. Though they have a long history, they are still a delightful addition to any garden or home. The designs may have changed a bit to reflect modern tastes, but these little earth guardians will continue protecting gardens around the world for generations to come.
© 2018 Jennifer Wilber
Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on December 20, 2018:
I love garden gnomes. I have several in my garden. They are lovely. =)