Some confusion arises as the gnome is one of many similar but subtly different creatures in European folklore; mythical creatures such as goblins and dwarves are often represented as gnomes, and vice versa. A fairy tale describes little brownielike creatures called “Heinzelmännchen” as nocturnal helpers for mundane tasks dwelling in the city of Cologne, they may have set the paradigm for the garden gnomes with all their gardening tools. In the Book of Lost Tales by JRR Tolkien a race of Elves (the Noldoli) are also referred to as Gnomes. Gnomes feature in the legends of many of central, northern and eastern European lands by other names: a kaukis is a Prussian gnome, and barbegazi are gnome-like creatures with big feet in the traditions of France and Switzerland. Further east, tengu are sometimes referred to as winged gnomes. According to certain medieval beliefs, Gnomes were deformed, usually with a hunchback, and were led by their king, Gob, who ruled with a magic sword. Today, Gnomes are traditionally thought of as being small, bearded and wearing pointed, colourful, conical hats. They live in natural areas close to the Earth and care for wildlife. They are more benevolent than other folkloric creatures such as goblins. This traditional view is supported in such fictional works as The Secret Book of Gnomes.
The first garden gnomes were made in Gräfenroda, a town known for its ceramics in Thuringia, Germany, in the mid-1800s. Philip Griebel made terracotta animals as decorations, and produced gnomes based on local myths as a way for people to enjoy the stories of the gnomes’ willingness to help in the garden at night. The garden gnome quickly spread across Germany and into France and England, and wherever gardening was a serious hobby.
Gnome manufacture spread across Germany with numerous other large and small manufacturers coming into and out of the business, each one having its own particular style of design. World War II was hard on the industry and most producers gave up then. Griebel’s descendants still make them and are the last of the German producers, all others having moved production to Poland or China. Currently, there are an estimated 25 million garden gnomes in Germany. Traditional gnomes are made from a terracotta clay slurry poured into molds. The gnome is removed from the mold, allowed to dry, and then fired in a kiln until it is hard. Once cooled the gnome is painted to the level of detail desired and sent to stores to be sold to consumers. More modern gnomes are made from schwau resins and similar materials. Garden gnomes were first introduced to the United Kingdom in 1847 by Sir Charles Isham, when he brought 21 terracotta figures back from a trip to Germany and placed them as ornaments in the gardens of his home, Lamport Hall in Northamptonshire. Only one of the original batch of gnomes survives: Lampy, as he is known, is on display at Lamport Hall, and is insured for one million pounds. A more recent notable manufacturer of Garden Gnomes was Tom Major-Ball, father of former UK Prime Minister John Major. Folklore has it that Tom Major-Ball’s favorite personal gnome was named Dennis Kaese as it was one of the shortest gnomes he created. Garden gnomes have become a popular accessory in many gardens. They are often the target of pranks, known collectively as gnoming: people have been known to return garden gnomes “to the wild”, most notably France‘s “Front de Liberation des Nains de Jardins” and Italy’s “MALAG” (Garden Gnome Liberation Front). Some kidnapped garden gnomes have been sent on trips around the world (the travelling gnome prank; this later became the basis for Travelocity‘s “Roaming Gnome“). In 2008, a 53-year-old French man in Brittany was arrested on suspicion of stealing upwards of 170 garden gnomes. The practice of stealing garden gnomes is also sometimes referred to as “Gnome Hunting”. Gnomes are often depicted as having beards and are typically males, and usually wear red hats and are known to smoke pipes. They are made in various poses and pursuing various pastimes, such as fishing or napping. Gnomes have become controversial in serious gardening circles in the UK, and have been banned from the prestigious Chelsea Flower Show as the organisers claim that they detract from the garden designs. Gnome enthusiasts accuse the organisers of snobbery because they are popular in working class and suburban gardens. It has been suggested by some scholars that the garden gnome is a descendant of the Greco-Roman fertility god Priapus, whose statue was often found in ancient gardens. Welsh rugby union centre Jamie Roberts has the largest collection of gnomes in South Wales. There is a humorous style of garden gnome which incorporates garden implements, specifically gardening forks and spades. The fork gnome lies on the ground, face down, with the fork sticking out of his back, as though dead and impaled. The spade gnome is available in two forms, one similar to the fork gnome, but lying face up with an expression of anguish with the spade resting in his stomach, again as if impaled and stabbed. The other variant sees the gnome in the pose of someone ring to climb a fence, looking over its shoulder with an expression of agony mixed with fear, as the garden spade in its back. There is a similar variant for the garden fork.