The History of Gnomes – Gnomania
Scene from Gnome King and the fairy of the silver mine, at the Queen's Theatre, London, United Kingdom. The Illustrated London News, volume LIV, January 2, 1869. Source: (Getty Image #935341336 De Agostini Collection)
Typical gnomes are those little stone garden people always hanging around in people’s gardens. They are usually colorful with white beards, puffy cheeks, and wearing a dunce cap. Gnomes are depicted in the Wizard of Oz, Narnia, and Middle Earth in various forms.
In actuality, these garden people first appeared on the scene in the 1800s but they looked much different than what you see today. They were first produced in Germany and were made out of clay. In the 1840s, they became popular in the gardens of England. They became increasingly popular and, as a result, were mass-produced in Germany in the 1870s reaching worldwide popularity with the help of August Heissner as well as Philipp Griebel who were manufacturers of these gnomes.
According to mythology, gnomes lived underground and were considered to be guardians over treasure such as gold. The name “gnome” is a Latin word that means “earth-dweller.” Gnomes are referred to as leprechauns in Ireland, hobs in England, and various other names in other countries. Sometimes they would be mischievous and “moon” people among other such antics. In contrast to the way they look today, they were small, ugly creatures.
In the 18th Century, a traditional practice of the wealthy in England was to show off their wealth by having human gnomes in their gardens. They hired people called garden or ornamental hermits who would be entertaining to their guests. Francis of Paola was the first one of these “human” gnomes who had lived in caves in Southern Italy during the 15th century. These English elites would build a small hut or grotto to place at the end of their garden for them to live in and have certain items placed nearby such as a Bible or classical book, an hourglass, and/or other such items.
The hermits had to abide by strict rules upon being hired. They had to have the right attire such as a druid-like costume, were not to wash, cut their hair or beard, or leave the garden area while they were under assignment to them. Some were not allowed to speak to anyone such as guests or servants and was like a statue. Others actually did want them to speak as a way to entertain their guests. Because of these rigid rules, many of them ran away. Later, many of these human hermits were replaced with robotic type ones until eventually garden gnomes became popular more like what is seen today.
A practice began that started out to be harmless pranks by family or friends that would “kidnap” the gnomes. The gnome-nappers would take pictures at various places with the gnome while on a trip and then later return the gnome “unharmed” to the owner along with a photo album of all of the pictures they took. Later, this “game” went to another level. The “gnome-nappers” would not just take the gnome but leave a ransom note in its place and it was no longer just family and friends but strangers doing this. Then groups called Gnome Liberation Groups started popping up where they felt the need to liberate the gnomes from their “gardens,” thus taking them; but, rather than returning them to their owners, would leave them in forests or parks as that would be their more natural habitats.
Modern Day Garden Gnomes
The reasoning behind garden gnomes is that they are said to help protect the garden at night which is when the gnomes supposedly come alive. According to legend, they loved the darkness because of having lived underground for so long, and when exposed to the light, they were turned to stone. Others also believe that they bring good luck and good fortune for not only their gardens but also for their livestock.