Some people find them kitsch or old-fashioned, others are crazy about them. One thing is clear, their history is not recent and their success persists over the centuries. It is estimated that there are about 25 million in German gardens. What explains this passion?
The garden gnome is a good example of globalization before the letter. Indeed, the first gnome was created about 800 years ago in Anatolia. It then passes through Italy to Central Europe, from where it spreads like a powder trail through the gardens of Germany and Europe. Whether you love them or hate them, garden gnomes have been part of our culture for centuries. They adorn rockeries and lawns all over the world, from the most modest dwellings to the largest baroque residences.
The origin of garden gnomes
Dwarves can be found in many mythologies, legends and fairy tales. Already in ancient times, monarchs liked to surround themselves with small or malformed people, called court dwarves. To have fun… but not only. In northern mythology, gnomes are creatures living underground, in rocks or mountains. They are characterized by their skill and sometimes possess magical powers and great wisdom. The belief in caricatured dwarves, small in size and generally clever and mysterious, remained in German folklore after Christianization. But the archetype of the garden gnome comes from Eastern Anatolia. Small figurines appeared in the 13th century in the mines of Cappadocia, where the exploitation of the deep galleries was preferably entrusted to small people, dressed with red padded hats and brightly coloured clothing to locate them from afar. Later, garden gnomes were found in Italy in the 16th century. Then they expanded into the baroque gardens of the houses and monasteries of present-day Austria,
First mass production
The industrial production of ceramic garden gnomes began in Germany at the end of the 19th century, in the Thuringian mining region. Local craftsmen have popularized the figure of the garden gnome as we know it: in leather apron, with a shovel, pickaxe, lantern or wheelbarrow, they usually wear a sharp red hat that recalls the old Phrygian hat and looks like Santa’s hat. Source: Behemot53 via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
Garden Dwarf Liberation Front
At the end of the 20th century, garden gnomes were even used as a pretext to defend a political cause. They thus gave birth to an informal network, the Garden Dwarf Liberation Front, aimed at restoring freedom to these little characters locked up in private gardens. In the greatest secrecy, members would “free” them at night to deposit them in parks or open forests. But the underlying political message was obvious: let us be free like the dwarves freed from their masters.
Nanomania and nanology
With reference to botanical nomenclature, the garden gnome is sometimes ironically referred to as “Nanus hortorum vulgaris” in Latin which means “ordinary garden or park dwarf”. Did you know that people who collect garden gnomes are called nanomaniacs? Their love for these small figurines is inversely proportional to their size. In Switzerland, at the end of the 20th century, garden gnomes even gave birth to a new science: nanology. Fritz Friedmann, a self-proclaimed professor of nanology, is the author of the book “Zipfel auf : All about garden gnomes. A purely scientific text and a reading book. “In 1980, he also founded the IVZSG, the international association for the protection of garden gnomes. Garden gnomes come in all kinds of shapes, from the most “modern” or unusual to the most controversial. But the classic figures (dwarf worker with lantern, wheelbarrow, pickaxe, garden tool, red hood) remain the most popular.
A tradition that continues in the 21st century
Even today, garden gnomes remain popular decorative objects – between cult and kitsch. Moreover, it is said that garden gnomes protect the garden and bring good luck. Isn’t that reason enough to install at least one dwarf with a red hat in your flower beds?
Between love and dislove
Very often considered as a sign of bad taste, the garden gnome suffered from a poor image at the end of the 20th century. But for some time now, the trend has been reversed again. The endangered species is being reborn through the magic of the Internet and social media where they thrive. With the rise of photo sharing, the garden gnome has come back to the forefront, especially since he has made a notable appearance in films such as “Le destin d’Amélie Poulain’ and in advertising campaigns. Through the magic of Facebook and Instagram, the “liberated” dwarves have become “gnomads” and find themselves in front of exotic places like the Tah Mahal or the Sphinx. In short, often shunned or mocked, garden gnomes are once again in the spirit of the times.
The dwarf works like an eye-catcher. It brings a touch of humour to the garden, without drifting into kitsch. All you have to do is let your personality and creativity speak for yourself. For, even if the tales describe him as a little hideous being with a sulky face, his presence in the garden is rather sympathetic and full of mischief. It has evolved over time. It keeps its classic image but the accessories are renewed: new gardening tools, musical instruments, etc.
In 2017, Google even designed a Google Gnome, an intelligent product that, in the vein of the Google Home voice assistant, would help you manage the garden. It was actually a joke for April 1st, but who knows, the next garden gnomes may have artificial intelligence!
The largest dwarf reserve in Europe
Located in Devon, in the middle of the countryside, a few kilometres from British Cornwall, the Gnome Reserve is a 1.6 ha estate comprising forest, stream, pond, meadow and garden that houses more than 2,000 gnomes and elves.
And what is your favorite garden gnome?
In its original form, the garden gnome is made of fired clay and painted by hand. Today, the industry offers multiple variants in different materials. The Garden ID range is made of polyresin coated with a special outdoor paint. The figurines measure from 15 to 65 cm height depending on the model. The range consists of about fourty figurines divided into different themes: music, work, forest, tools…
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