Gnome mythology is centuries old. In Germany they are thought of as from the earth and often seen as miners or guardians of buried treasure. They were thought to bring good fortune which is why they were adopted by so many German homes. These gnomes often featured in fairy tales, such as those told by the Brothers Grimm, and most of the early models of gnomes were produced in Germany in the nineteenth century when they were large ceramic industry producing household and garden ornaments and they capitalised on the concept of gnomes.
Many of these early gnome figures were large and superbly sculpted and it is not surprising that that they often found their way into affluent homes and gardens. Although beautifully made, they mainly followed the ‘dwarfish’ concept and adhered to the heavy Victorian fashion – they were not brightly painted, nor did they portray the merry smiling little man we expect to see today. This image of the gnome continued virtually unchanged until the 1930’s when in 1937, Walt Disney Productions created their animated film ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ based on the Brothers Grimm tale of ‘Little Snow White’. Disney softened the Brothers Grimm story by taking out or changing the more gory passages and although he kept the dwarfs as miners, he invented cute characters for them, with names and endearing features. Doc, Grumpy, Happy, Sneezy, Bashful, Sleepy and Dopey (who did not incidentally have a beard), became household favourites everywhere and changed forever the popular image of the gnome.
However, it was not until after the Second World War, when production resumed, that the gnome’s image was soften and colours brightened, and makers such as Griebel and Heissner started producing the gnome as we know it and which was, by then, becoming universally recognised as a ‘garden gnome’. Although the Scandinavian tradition of Christmas gnomes continued, the garden gnome began to enter the public consciousness as a colourful and cheerful character who went on to brighten many suburban gardens.
These brightly coloured characters became very popular as a garden decoration in may countries during the so called ‘innocent 50’s’ but gradually they began to earn a reputation as being naff or kitsch in the ‘groovy’ 60’s’ and ‘swinging 70’s’. In the UK they were believed to adversely affect the value of a house and house sellers were advised 'to hide then behind the begonias until the signature is on the dotted line'.
But though the question that is most often posed is ‘where on earth did garden gnomes come from?’, the question we should be asking is, ‘where are they going?’.
This is an extract from our book entitled ‘Gnomeland – An introduction to the little people’ which is available to buy on Amazon.