Everything you need to know about gnomes.
Updated: Jan 3
From their humble origins in German folklore to their WW2 smuggling days.
I was thirteen when my neighbor brought me down to her garden to teach me about gnomes. It was then, under the hot July sun, staring down a worn stone figurine with only one black glass eye, that my neighbor told me: “Once you have a gnome, you can never get rid of him.”
She explained how she first received this gnome as a gift in the mail in 1990 from her estranged cousin. Thinking her cousin clearly didn’t understand her taste, she put the gnome — who had a fishing pole in one hand and a garden hoe in the other — up in the attic.
But the gnome wouldn’t stay there for long. Each morning, my neighbor would wake up to notice the gnome sitting on the steps leading up to the attic, as if he had simply walked down that night but had been interrupted before getting to his destination. Thinking her kids were teasing her, my neighbor played along and put the gnome back in the attic each morning.
This continued for years. The gnome would appear in strange places — from the bathroom to the basement — each time looking increasingly worn from his travels. Getting tired of this “game”, Kristin decided she would end the pranks once and for all by hiding the gnome outside in the garden behind a large tomato plant.
The gnome never moved again.
My neighbor is not alone in believing that gnomes have supernatural capabilities. While gnomes may seem innocuous or silly to most, there's actually a long and storied history behind this garden decor. German for “earth dwellers”, gnomes first appeared in German folklore, where they were often described as old men who lived underground and guarded secret treasures, like gold.
Let's find out a bit more about these whimsical creatures and the legend behind them.
Bringing this German folklore to life, gnomes as we know them were first produced in Germany in 1840 by a man named Phillip Griebel. Made out of terracotta, these figurines often had long white bears, puffy cheeks, and some type of pointed hat.
As the creatures became increasingly popular in English gardens, many considered them to be symbols of good fortune, and some even believed that the gnomes helped them ward off thieves, crop-killing insects and more.
It was thought that these gnomes came to life during the nighttime, helping farmers with tasks like clipping leaves, watering plants, adding nutrients to the soil, and more. However, as the legend goes, the sun transforms gnomes back into stone — meaning that they are never seen moving in the daytime. This is why my neighbor believes her gnome was frequently sitting on the steps to the attic — he was looking for the garden, but turned back stone each morning before he could find it.
While the Griebel family continued to have a widely successful business in Germany, other manufactures popped up throughout England, and the gnome became increasingly popular in gardens throughout Europe.
All of this changed at the dawn of the second World War, when gnomes with hollow bodies were used to carry top secret paperwork and military intelligence across state lines. Learning how gnomes were being used in throughout Europe, their production was shortly banned in Germany. The manufacturing of gnomes during this time all but halted completely.
After the War, demand for gnomes once again skyrocketed. For several years they were the number one export coming out of East Germany, and they have been seen in gardens around the world ever since.
While the Griebel family still produces a small number of gnomes to this day, they are mass produced around the world. In America, gnomes are often made out of plastic and are much more vividly-colored than the original gnomes coming out of Germany.
Hoping to free gnomes from their “oppressive” task of gardening, a group of Frenchmen have started the “Garden Gnome Liberation Front”. This international group believes that gnomes, like humans, have an “inalienable right to freedom” and should not be “forced” to work in gardens overnight. Often, these groups work to steal gnomes from the gardens where they reside to “return” them to the forest where they were thought to once live.
For years, those who were looking for their missing gnomes were able to visit “Gnomes Without Homes”, an international database for lost gnomes. The site, which has since been shut down, was popular among former gnome-owners who's figurines had been stolen by the Garden Gnome LIberation Front, or perhaps had run off to another garden in the night.
While you may have seldom put much thought into your gnomes, I hope you now have a newfound appreciation for these whimsical garden dwellers. Superstition aside, gnomes have a storied history — and who knows — they may even be helping out your garden.