The History of Garden Gnomes

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One of the most fascinating things about history is learning the background of modern practices, especially when they are rich and complex. Garden gnomes are a classic example of this. We’ve all seen these little bearded men staring at us from a garden bed. The garden gnome has become synonymous with the magic of a garden, and are as normal to see as the gardens themselves. However, the longer you stare at these statues, the more intriguing they become.

Garden gnomes are actually one of the longest lasting folklore traditions, and whilst they may be used now for reasons different from the past, their history will forever remain intact. Much like the gnomes themselves, garden gnomes have quite a colorful history. Ancient practices give us an insight in to how the tradition of placing garden gnomes began.

The placing of statues and monuments within a garden can be traced back to ancient Rome. When Rome was still the capital of the world, priests, the prosperous and wealthy, would place statues of gods. These statues were said to guard against evil spirits, bring fortune and pave the way for a more prosperous future.

The placing of garden gnomes begins with the conception of the gnome itself. The gnome actually appears in ancient Germanic and Scandinavian folk law, taking its inspiration from other traditions. The gnome took its inspiration from ‘the dwarf’ (named in a less politically correct time) that was said to live underground. Almost identical in appearance to dwarfs, and to the humor of the past, gnomes were seen as bearded shorter men that would guard dwellings, mines and caves, holding these places sacred. Although some gnomes existed to punish, most were non-threatening and were recognized as ‘earth dwellers’ where they would move through the earth as physical manifestations of the earth itself.  

garden gnome history

It wasn’t until the renaissance period that the gnome grew in popularity. Swiss literature describes the gnome’s protective properties and mystical nature in detail, and takes note of their powers to hold protection than under the earth, along with treasure that they could bring.

And So We Reach the History of Garden Gnomes

In the 17th century, the widespread practice of placing gnomes in the garden began. These gnomes were often hand painted and made of simple materials such as wood and porcelain. Garden gnomes were not in produced in huge quantities and mostly remained in Swiss villages, until their subsequent spread around the rest of Europe.

Stories of the garden gnome’s magic would be used to enlighten children, and landholders would feel secure in the knowledge that the gnome would help protect them from intruders, much like a religious statue is said to protect from evil spirits. Gnomes would move at night, protecting properties and taking measures to improve garden growth. Centering around fairy-tale, the stories grew and thus began the garden gnome’s legacy.

The modern garden gnome, originally made of terracotta, first appeared in Germany around the 18th century. The market was heavily dominated by two major names – Philipp Griebel and August Heissner. Griebel is the first actual recorded manufacturer of garden gnome, although this is disputed by some, and was from Graefenroda in Germany. Griebel would go on to be one of the oldest names to produce garden gnomes. Heissner produced high quality garden gnomes and would go on to be known as producing some of the best quality garden gnomes.

history of garden gnomes

A less scientifically enlightened time, and at the beginnings of the industrial revolution people still needed hope. For many, subsistence living was a reality and it was believed by some that the presence of these garden gnomes would bring with it some good luck and fortune in the way of crop growth. This sentiment is one that is still held by some today, such as my friend Ted who writes about chainsaw reviews, who places garden gnomes in his vegetable patch.

The garden gnomes subsequent spread in popularity around Europe can be seen by English explorer Sir Charles Isham, who in 1847 purchased 21 terracotta garden gnomes and brought them with him back to England – one of which, known as “Lampy,” still survives today.

Declining popularity and the troubling times of World War I resulted in a decline in the popularity of garden gnomes. Who else to spark interest in them again but Disney, when in the 1930s, the famous Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs put the focus back on these mystical men of the past.

The tradition of garden gnomes has steadily continued on. The migration of Europeans to the US brought with it the garden gnome tradition, and it survives here as much as it did in these migrant’s home countries.

It is hard to deny the magic of a garden gnome when you consider their rich history. Garden gnomes are now everywhere and can be purchased cheap in many gardening shops, although they are now mass produced and made of inferior materials. It is important to remember the historical elements of everything, including things that may seem insignificant. Some companies still create handmade terracotta gnomes, and to keep their history alive, there is no other type of gnome to buy. Garden gnomes remain as one of the ways traditional folk law has implemented itself into modern day life. Gnomes are a connection to history, and although they can look amusing, the history itself is intriguing reminder of our past.

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"To know the truth of history is to realize its ultimate myth and its inevitable ambiguity." I love all history; however, my favorite areas are World War II, Civil Rights Movement, and U.S. Constitutional history.

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