Whimsical, funny, vulgar: A brief history of the garden gnome - The Washington Post
(Washington Post illustration; iStock)
6 min

Despite their small stature, garden gnomes spark big debates. Are they chintzy or classy? Lovable or loathsome? The perfect addition to a garden bed or an easy way to ruin your landscaping? No matter your opinion, there’s no denying that these little folks are conversation starters.

The story of how these sometimes whimsical, sometimes comical, sometimes vulgar statues became fixtures in yards and gardens is as colorful and complex as the creatures themselves. “That’s the trouble with gnomes,” says Twigs Way, garden historian and author of “Garden Gnomes: A History.” “They come from lots of different kinds of sources.”

There are plenty of little characters in mythologies from around the world — including the Egyptian god Bes, and brownies, house spirits in British and Scottish folklore — and small stone figures started appearing in Italian gardens during the Renaissance. However, according to Way, what have become known as garden gnomes in the United States and England can be traced to dwarf statues that originated in Germany’s Black Forest region around the early 19th century. They were initially carved out of wood; by the mid-19th century, they were cast in terra cotta and porcelain. They weren’t a garden fixture, though; they were hand-painted, usually about three feet tall and expensive, so they were intended to be displayed inside as pieces of art.

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Although those figures were often depicted in what has become their trademark red conical hats, blue shirts and boots, they didn’t strike lazy or lackadaisical poses. They were gardeners, carpenters, fishermen, even hunters. “To see pictures of gnomes with shotguns kind of took me aback,” says Way, who uncovered such images in old catalogues.

Sir Charles Isham gets credit for bringing the dwarves into Britain and out into the garden, importing a number of them from Germany in the 1840s to decorate his massive rockery garden at Lamport Hall, his estate in Northamptonshire. It wasn’t the most auspicious introduction. “He was extremely eccentric,” Way says. “The fact that the first person that starts collecting them in England is a pro-socialist vegetarian teetotaler who believes dwarfs and little folk are real is not a great way to establish their legitimacy.”

The next ambassador of the small statues was another oddball: Sir Frank Crisp, whose roughly 62-acre estate in Henley-on-Thames, Friar Park, was dotted with German garden gnomes and open to the public in the early 20th century. (George Harrison of the Beatles bought the property in 1970 and claimed to unearth a few of the original gnomes, which he posed with on the cover of his album “All Things Must Pass.”) Wealthy landowners began adopting the gnomes — as they were commonly called by then — as sophisticated garden accessories, thanks to Isham and Crisp. Photos of them even appeared in Britain’s arbiter of high-end style, Country Life magazine.

In 1912, gnomes were featured at the Royal International Horticultural Exhibition, a forerunner of the Chelsea Flower Show, which began the following year and didn’t allow gnomes to be featured, because trendsetters of the time determined they weren’t tasteful enough. Their 15 minutes of fame with the posh crowd was almost over.

The gnomes fell further out of favor during the two world wars, when the British spurned anything related to Germany, but they enjoyed a resurgence in the 1950s and ’60s. Mass-produced and often made of concrete, they were cheaper and smaller, making them more accessible to middle- and lower-class homeowners. This democratization was the nail in the coffin for posh gardeners. “They’re no longer suitable for upper-class gardens now that they’re down in the suburbs,” Way says.

No matter. Gnomes went international, immigrating across the Atlantic, where Americans were infatuated by them, in part thanks to the popularity of Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Though there isn’t a particular mythology associated with them in the United States, people lump them in with other good-natured mystical beings, such as fairies and Chinese dragons. “I think a lot of people who get a gnome — we’re not talking about people who cover their entire front garden with them — do often attribute some kind of luck to them,” Way says.

Their popularity skyrocketed in the United States in 1976, when Wil Huygen’s book “Gnomes,” featuring charming illustrations by Rien Poortvliet, became a sensation, selling more than a million copies. The collaborators claimed their fictional work was based on observations of actual living gnomes in their native Holland, documenting history, housebuilding, courtship and copulation (which was apparently so robust that the female gnomes almost always gave birth to twins). Poortvliet’s playful pictures of gnomes rubbing noses, helping injured animals and building snug underground cabins painted them as endearing, warmhearted characters full of good intentions.

The statues took a bit of an irreverent turn in the 1980s, when, Way notes, topless female gnomes and farting gnomes began showing up on lawns. It was downhill from there. Now it’s possible to find statues of gnomes mooning, sitting on the toilet and vomiting rainbows. We think Isham would not approve.

Despite all the mockery, there have been many loving homages to the diminutive yard fixtures. In the 2001 film “Amélie,” a stolen garden gnome is sent around the world to be photographed with famous landmarks, the inspiration for Travelocity’s Roaming Gnome ad series. There have been a pair of successful, star-studded animated films, “Gnomeo & Juliet” and “Sherlock Gnomes.” (Our fingers are crossed they come out with “Mad Max Beyond Thundergnome” next.)

The Chelsea Flower Show finally warmed up to them, allowing gnomes decorated by the likes of Elton John and Judi Dench to grace the gardens at the show’s 2013 centenary celebration. There was even a giant-size gnome on display, a perfect prop for early adopters of Instagram looking for a selfie mate.

And don’t expect them to stop popping up in flower beds, at events or on your screens. “They’re here to stay, because we keep reinventing them,” Way says. “Who knows what we’ll do with them next?”

Get the look at home

If you’re looking to add a gnome — or another whimsical figure — to your garden, try one of these options.

Geometric gnome ($151.01 for a set of three, platoDESIGNshop on etsy.com). These modern-minded, faceted fellows can be tucked into corners and beside plantings.

Rocker gnome ($50.11, SEWASGartenzwerge on etsy.com). Full of fab flair and gleaming with purple glitter paint, this groovy little dude rocks harder than Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock.

Ziggy the garden gnome ($154.95, williams-sonoma.com). Weighing 75 pounds and measuring 29 inches tall, this oversize gnome works well as dashing decor or a doorstop.

Purple mushroom ($44.99, TeresasCeramics on etsy.com). Gnomes and shrooms go together like leprechauns and pots of gold, so pair this funky fungus with your chillest gnomie.