They’ve traveled around the world, they’ve starred in hit movies, and they’re hanging out in a garden near you… if not in your own backyard.
They’re garden gnomes, those cheerful and chubby guys and gals who sometimes carry a watering can, spade or tobacco pipe but always sport a pointed, colorful cap. And despite what you may think, garden gnomes are more than just mid 20th-century kitsch icons. They’re hot collectibles, and their history stretches back further than you may assume.
The ancestry of the modern garden gnome is a bit hazy; some scholars claim that these benevolent sculptures can trace their roots back to Classical days. Priapus was an unusual Greco-Roman fertility god who protected gardens (as well as male genitalia). He was often depicted as ugly and misshapen with a pointed cap. Fashionable Romans placed his anatomically incorrect statues in their own gardens as good-luck charms.
The next potential ancestor of today’s garden gnome can be found in the Renaissance, when all things Classical came back into style. Wealthy Europeans placed carved stone “grotesques” in their gardens, perhaps inspired by the earlier Priapus craze. The statues were usually garishly painted and were sometimes referred to as “dwarfs.”
This craze for garden decorations took an unusual turn with the 18th-century trend of the ornamental hermit. These were real men who found a strange sort of employment among the aristocracy of Europe: They would pretend to be hermits on a full-time basis, living in natural or artificial caves and dressing like druids for the entertainment of their landowning employers. There have been suggestions that these eccentric actors were also an inspiration for today’s beloved gnomes.
The outdoor grotesque came inside during the late 1700s with the introduction of wooden “house dwarfs.” These whimsically carved figures were first produced in the area around the town of Brienz in Switzerland. They came to resemble the garden gnomes we know and love today, with beards, pointed caps and garden tools.
Craftsmen in Germany and Poland also began manufacturing these figures. In 1841, the Dresden firm of Baehr and Maresch advertised Gartenzwerge, or garden dwarfs. These statues were intended for outdoor use and were made of sturdier and more weather-resilient materials. Throughout this decade, the popularity of these figures grew and spread throughout Europe. Manufacturers throughout Germany quickly began making these whimsical decorations, and each firm became known for its own particular style.
The first gnomes were imported into England in 1847 by Sir Charles Isham of Lamport Hall, Northampton. However, Isham ordered 21 terra-cotta house dwarfs – rather than Gartenzwerge – from the manufacturing company of Philip Griebel.
Isham, who was a trend-setting gardener, decided to set up a mining tableau in an alpine-themed rockery on his property. He brought his house dwarfs outside and arranged them in the garden. Claiming that this was the first luxury garden to feature figurines (as opposed to Classical-style statuary) outside Japan, Isham kicked off a garden gnome craze.
Sadly, Isham’s daughter didn’t share in her father’s affection for the gnomes, and after his death in 1903, she ordered them destroyed. However, in a twist worthy of a fairy tale, one gnome managed to escape this fate. Nicknamed “Lampy,” England’s oldest gnome still lives at Lamport Hall and is insured for 1 million pounds.
Until the figures came to England, they were always called “dwarfs,” and never “gnomes.” The word “gnome” had been first used in English in the early 18th century, with Alexander Pope’s mock-epic poem “The Rape of the Lock.” However, the term wasn’t commonly used until the early 19th century, when fairy tales came into vogue and, in the ensuing decades, as garden gnomes became popular.
Tourists to Germany, Switzerland and Poland began buying both house dwarfs and Gartenzwerge as souvenirs, and the first garden gnome came to America by 1860. Throughout the second half of the 19th century, the gnome industry flourished.
Unfortunately, in the U.S. and England, the popularity of German gnomes has reflected public sentiment toward their home country. Gnomes took a hit during World War I but fell back into vogue during the 1930s. This new popularity was in thanks both to the expansion of suburbs, which meant that gardens were no longer limited to the upper classes, and to the release of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937.
However, World War II all but destroyed the garden gnome industry. Urban legend would have it that the Nazis banned the manufacture of gnomes because their hollow bodies made ideal hiding places for messages between spies. But in reality, the loss of the worldwide market for the decorations, along with domestic wartime austerity, nearly killed the manufacturing tradition.
During World War II and the years that followed, most gnome manufacturers closed up shop. But by the 1970s, these charming ornaments had snuck back into the public’s affection thanks to the decade’s affection for whimsicality, as well as to the 1976 release of Rien Poortvliet and Wil Huygen’s landmark “guide,” Gnomes.
Post-war gnomes tend to be made of cheaper, more resilient and more brightly colored plastic, versus their forefathers’ ceramic composition. The new gnome manufacturers also more readily applied humor to their products. This included even the Goebel company of Hummel fame, which created a line of gnomes representing various “professions,” including chimney sweep, housewife, drunkard and vegetarian.
Today, garden gnomes are beloved all over the world. It’s been estimated that in Germany, there are more than 25 million Gartenzwerge. The United Kingdom’s prestigious Chelsea Flower Show decided in 2013 to lift its ban on garden gnomes, which it had once dismissed as “tacky.” And here in the U.S., consumers can find hippie gnomes, superhero gnomes, zombie gnomes, X-rated gnomes… you name it!
However, collectors of vintage garden gnomes abound. While some will “adopt” gnomes of all shapes and sizes, others hone in on gnomes made by one particular manufacturing firm.
Candy Kimmel collects gnomes made by Balzer & Bock, a German company that operated in the early 1900s.