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At some point, you have probably seen a little ceramic garden gnome in a neighbor’s front yard or flowerbed. At the very least, the words “garden gnome” conjure up a very specific image in your mind: a little man, one to two feet high, with a red cone hat and a long white beard. People put a lot of decorations in their gardens, but the garden gnome stands out as a classic. It has been in movies, and is featured in a series of commercials, but why did we start putting gnomes in our gardens? Actually, garden gnomes have a pretty extensive history, and it begins in Europe at the first use of the word “gnome” in the 16th century.
Gnomes have been around for hundreds of years. Finland, Iceland, France, Ireland, and several other countries have many different names for the creature we know as a gnome. The first written stories about gnomes paint them as magical protectors of the earth (it is thought that the word “gnome” may come from a Latin word meaning “earth-dweller”). Throughout the years, gnomes have been represented in folklore as both compassionate and malevolent entities, and have been equally loved and feared as a result. Gnomes have been known to quietly reward those that they like, and cause trouble for those that they don’t. They are said to have the ability to see into the future in some tales, and in others, they are believed to be in possession of valuable treasures underneath the earth. Though they are mischievous creatures, they have been shown respect for their capacity to protect the garden, increase growth, and bring good luck overall. This is still true today: “huldufólk,” or hidden people, are the small and powerful residents of Iceland, and Icelandic tradition requires that their living areas be protected, occasionally resulting in the construction of roads or buildings being modified or halted to avoid huldufólk territory. Small elf or gnome homes are a wonderful feature of some Icelandic gardens.
Garden statuary has been manufactured for hundreds of years, and it is unclear when the first garden gnome may have appeared. The man generally credited with bringing the modern garden gnome to life is Philipp Griebel of Germany. In the 1800s, Germany was a leader in ceramic production and known for its superior craftsmanship regarding garden statuary. Griebel’s garden gnomes were made of terracotta, expertly painted, and very popular in his home town of Gräfenroda. It wasn’t until an English aristocrat, named Sir Charles Isham, collected 21 of these little statues that England developed its own love affair with the garden gnome in 1847. Only one of the gnomes responsible for starting this Victorian craze survived (Isham’s daughters hated them, and managed to trash all but one), and it is currently on display in Lamport Hall in Northhamptonshire, England. Lampy may look a little rough around the edges these days, but he is insured for one million pounds (that’s a little over one and a half million dollars). In the aftermath of the World Wars, most manufacturers of German garden gnomes were forced to move their business to another country or fold, and the industry suffered a devastating blow. In spite of the difficult times, Griebel’s company survived, and you can still get a German-made Griebel garden gnome for your garden.
Today, garden gnome collecting is alive and well, and there are companies making wonderful gnomes around the world. Modern garden gnomes are a bit more hip, seen engaging in their favorite hobbies, lounging in swim trunks, or decked in the colors of their favorite sports teams. They’ve also been known to fall prey to kidnappers. The 1980s brought us the first case of gnome liberation or gnome-stealing, where a garden gnome is abducted, taken on a trip and photographed with various landmarks, and eventually returned. The photos are mailed or given to the owner upon its return to show him or her where the little gnome has been. This prank has directly contributed to the idea of the Travelling Gnome.
It is thought that having a garden gnome will give you good luck and a green thumb—even if that isn’t true, they'll still make you smile. Check out our gnomes and other garden decor at MasterGardening.com.