What are garden gnomes?
Garden gnomes are small terracotta, wooden, stone and more often now plastic statuettes, supposedly decorative!
They look like the dwarfs in Snow White.
They have a white beard and rosy cheeks, wear a red cap and trousers and jackets of various colors.
They have, as you can imagine, their detractors and their fans!
Some find them hideous, common and tacky.
Others collect them!
Some find them fun and kitsch, but wouldn’t have any in their own garden.
Others seem to have lost it… they indeed believe the garden gnomes are real living beings!
They even created the Front de Libération des Nains de Jardin in the 1990s in order to defend the little creatures’ rights!
The Association Internationale pour la Protection des Nains de Jardin or AINPJ (International Association for the Protection of garden gnomes) was founded in 1980.
Based in Basel, it aims to have the garden gnomes included on the UN’s list of endangered minorities.
The association has even issued a list of criteria for the little creatures:
They must be no more than 68 cm, wear a red cap, a white beard and be smiling.
They should be made from terracotta, but certainly not from wood, rubber nor plastic as the vulgar imitations mass-produced in Asia!
Garden gnomes’ origin
The garden gnomes fashion is not about to disappear, because it is not a recent nor a transitional trend.
The hideous garden gnomes began to invade our French gardens in the 15th century, during the French Renaissance.
They indeed became associated with the short men who worked in the gold and silver mines of Cappadocia in Turkey.
The exploitation of these mines required the drilling of long and narrow underground galleries.
Mine owners therefore began recruiting men of small size in order to conduct this delicate task.
They dressed them with red pants in order to spot them in the dark galleries.
They gave them also a red cap stuffed with straw in order to protect them against scree.
Local folks must have mistaken these tiny men covered with earth and dressed in funny costumes for gnomes coming straight out the bowels of the earth!
They soon triggered the resurgence of ancient legends, which had already been revived by Pliny the Elder, Homer and Aristotle in Ancient Greece.
The small miners were therefore assimilated with the legendary pygmies.
They indeed believed that the 50cm high pygmies lived in the bowels of the earth and came out at night.
The only way to exorcise the fear they aroused and protect the world from evil forces of darkness, was therefore to create statuettes in their image!
These wooden statues, dressed in red and wearing a red cap, were placed at the entrance of each gallery in order to protect the miners and keep evil spirits at bay.
The garden gnomes invasion
The ‘statuettes fashion’ soon spread outside the mining world and the gnomes invaded the gardens!
If you are interested by these original statuettes, you might want to see the collection of marble garden gnomes, produced in 1690 by Johann Bernhard von Erlach Fiascher.
They are on permanent exhibition in Marbell Palace in Salzburg.
The demand for garden gnomes was so high in the late 17th century that mass-production took off in Germany and Switzerland.
The ceramist Philip Griebel was the first to manufacture terracotta garden gnomes on a large scale in 1874.
Garden gnomes began to invade Western Europe, crossed France and reached England in the mid 19th century!
The enthusiasm of the British public spread like wildfire in 1847 when Sir Charles Isham brought 21 terracotta statuettes from Germany in order to decorate his park!
Isham is in fact credited for initiating the garden gnomes tradition!
Philip Griebel’s descendant, Rheinardt Griebel, today runs the family factory which is based in the town of Gräfenroda in Thuringia.
The factory produces 10,000 garden gnomes per year, many of which are exported all over the world!
What you should know is that genuine garden gnomes must be manufactured in Thuringia!
There are over 18 million garden gnomes in Germany, where they were even recognized as “Germanic cultural heritage” by a court in Munich, a few years ago.
Gardens gnomes have since traversed all countries and fashions.
Fortunately they are more popular in Germany than they are in France!
The first plastic garden gnomes appeared in 1964, when over 700,000 were sold every year!
These numbers have seriously decreased, however, too many garden gnomes are still found in French gardens.
They are hard to dislodge … but none has been found (yet!) in our beautiful Jardins à la Française!