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As popular lawn decorations, garden gnomes are deeply ingrained in our present-day culture and widely understood. These ornaments may feature prominently or subtlety, in yards big and small, all across North America and Europe. They’re so popular that they've even been featured in film and TV too.
Where do these ubiquitous, often cute and sometimes odd-looking adornments come from? The history of garden gnomes is both fascinating and surprising.
The earliest evidence of garden gnomes dates back to ancient times around the Mediterranean, where statues of the Greek god Priapus were sprinkled around gardens and green spaces. As the god of fertility, he was believed to bring good fortune to outdoor areas where crops grew and flowers bloomed.
Priapus, however, was also seen as indulgent and frivolous; in some records, he was the son of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and Dionysus, the god of wine. Notably, he was depicted as short and ugly with a Phrygian cap — the soft, conical red hat that gnomes came to be known for. These gnomes were relatively small, under 12 inches.
Similar off-putting statues were found in gardens during the Renaissance. Such figures were typically taller than those we are accustomed to today — up to 3 feet — but they were also more garish and obscene. Like Priapus statues, these were a symbol of fertility, particularly as related to excess and sexuality. As such, they were typically found in wealthier homes.
Garden gnomes as we know them today were popularized in Germany in the mid-1800s. These little figurines, anywhere from 3 to 6 inches tall, were constructed and sold as simple household decorations. They weren’t necessarily based on folklore, but their dwarf-like appearance soon lent them to mystical and magical stories. Dwarves were believed to work mines and farms, so their presence in those areas was thought to be a boon.
Gnomes spread across the continent as travel and tourism increased. Notably, traveler and aristocrat Charles Isham is credited with first showing gnomes in England. He brought back a collection from Germany and showcased them at Lamport Hall in Northamptonshire in the 1870s amid his lavish gardens.
They soon became sought-after in France and England as well as northern parts of the continent.
Gnomes skyrocketed in popularity in the early 20th century, but interest plummeted during World War I. Disney revived popularity with the 1937 film “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” which helped bring about the modern image of a garden gnome.
In the 1970s, counter culture helped diversify garden gnomes, where in addition to their traditional look, there was no shortage of weird, offbeat and absurd creations. Today, gnomes may be modeled after characters in pop culture, feature adult content or vary in size.
While early gnomes were crafted from wood, they later were made of terracotta clay in which a mold was crafted and then fired in a kiln. Made by hand, terracotta gnomes allow for intricate designs or coloring. The handmade gnomes also tended to hold up well to changing weather. Handcrafted options still exist and are made from clay, resin or other polymers.
However, mass-produced gnomes made of plastic became popular in the 1980s, allowing cheap gnomes to flood the market. These inexpensive options typically don’t last long and aren’t environmentally friendly.
Traditional garden gnomes feature bearded males boasting their iconic red hat and often a pipe. As creatures who enjoy leisurely pursuits, they are often depicted as relaxing, sleeping or fishing. Since gnomes are related to farming and gardening, some are depicted as wielding tools, such as rakes or shovels. Female gnomes were rare for some time, but they’ve increased in popularity and often still feature the archetypal cap.
Today, designs vary wildly. There is an array of modern options depicting various activities and looks ranging from the silly and absurd to the dark and scary.
Traditionally, gnomes were viewed as protectors. When they were set up in a house or on a farm, they were believed to watch over inhabitants and keep them safe. Later on, these whimsical creatures were seen more as good luck, promising fertility and fortune.
Gnomes may act as a centerpiece in a front garden or adorned subtly and placed throughout an outdoor space. Some may situate gnomes near ponds or bird feeders. Gardeners may choose to own just a single gnome or build a whole collection to put on display.
As gnomes spread throughout Europe in the 19th century, strong opinions were elicited, particularly the gnome aesthetic. Notably, the Royal Horticultural Society of England, an organization over 200 years old that promotes and cultivates an interest in gardening, banned gnomes from being used in any competitions or grand showcases, deeming them tacky and unsophisticated.
In 2013, however, that ban was temporarily lifted at the Chelsea Flower Show. The event welcomed a range of gnomes and included some decorated by celebrities, such as Elton John, Judi Dench and Dolly Parton.
Believing in jest that garden gnomes should be free, people in the 1970s began taking gnomes on vacation and snapping photos. This led to tourist-type pictures of gnomes captured in front of iconic landmarks around the world.
A prank developed as well. Garden gnomes were nabbed from lawns and taken on a trip. Captors photographed gnomes and sent the images to the owners, later returning their gnomes to their rightful homes. The fad isn’t as popular as it once was, but some still pack their gnome when heading on an adventure.
This high-quality gnome boasts a traditional appearance: It’s a bearded male donning the iconic red hat. Although pricey, this durable model is made of resin and stone and is a colorful, detailed and welcome addition to any outdoor space.
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A modern take on a classic ornament, this garden gnome features a solar LED light that illuminates at night. This playful gnome heralds the garden with his flower trumpet and is designed to withstand weather, including snow and UV rays.
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This simple 10-inch gnome is perfect for a porch or garden or a whimsical addition to an office space. Its red hat helps to keep birds at bay and it is weather-resistant.
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Anthony Marcusa is a writer for BestReviews. BestReviews is a product review company with a singular mission: to help simplify your purchasing decisions and save you time and money.
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