Getting to Gnome You

Love them or hate them, there’s no denying the popularity of garden gnomes. The mischievous decorations, fishing, napping, or just standing sentry, can be found in gardens across the United States and Europe. You’re bound to see a few new ones pop up in gardens near you this spring. So, where did they come from?


The origin of gnomes.
The origin of gnomes can be found in 16th century Renaissance folklore. They are a type of “elemental” spirit, said to possess the ability to move through solid earth just as ordinary humans move through air. They were considered to be guardians of the earth and its treasures, and they were thought to have supernatural powers and magical knowledge.

The association with the soil coupled with folk tales of helpful gnomes and elves assisting humans in their work might explain why gnome figurines began appearing in gardens across Europe by the late 18th century.

The exact origins of the first figurines that came to be known as “garden gnomes” are in dispute, but they likely came from Germany. The town of Gräfenroda is recognized as the birthplace of the garden gnome, and the most famous manufacturer was Philipp Griebel, a porcelain molder whose descendants still produce garden gnomes in Germany to this day. The town is also home to a garden gnome museum and hosts an annual gnome celebration.

From Germany, garden gnomes spread across Europe, reaching Great Britain in 1867. Believing they had protective powers, gardener and spiritualist Sir Charles Isham brought 21 figurines from Germany to the gardens of Lamport Hall. They soon found their way to the United States where their popularity grew steadily during the 20th century.

Gnomes that strike a pose.
Classic garden gnomes come in a variety of different poses. Some carry garden tools, some play musical instruments, and some are found simply smoking a pipe while reclining on a stone. Gnomes traditionally wear a pointy red cap, curly white beard and often a wry grin, but their popularity has led them to take many whimsical forms. Today, you can find gnome mascots for your favorite professional sports teams, gnomes that pay homage to famous politicians and celebrities, and many others.

Popular culture or practical joker.
Garden gnomes have had a big impact on popular culture and caused a fair bit of controversy. Lending to the reputation as practical jokers, the statues have become victims of kidnappings. In France, the Garden Gnome Liberation Front has “liberated” hundreds of figurines in a satirical effort to return the gnomes to the wild. And some pranksters have even absconded with gnomes and taken them on vacations, snapping pictures of their captives at famous locations around the world and sending the photos back to their owners. In fact, this real-life prank became the inspiration for a famous ad campaign for a travel website.

Despite popular culture, some organizations haven’t always seen the humor in garden gnomes, most notably the Royal Horticultural Society in the United Kingdom, proprietor of the Chelsea Flower Show. For years, “tacky” garden gnomes were controversially banned from the show, despite protests from show participants. For 2013, however, in a complete reversal, the show will officially welcome gnomes for the first time, and the Queen herself will inspect a parade of 150 figurines.



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