The Nature of Gnomes: Creatures of Sweet Confusion

Posted by admin in Interior Garden

“A 16th century fabled race of dwarfed creatures who live underground and guard treasures, the ‘garden gnome” was created in 1860 in Graefenroda, a charming town in Thuringia, Germany”

My husband and I purchased a pair of exceptional garden gnomes several years ago. These fine late 19th-century fellows are fashioned in cast iron and sport their original paint. Their long, silly slippers are mounted on iron pedestals engraved with their birthright: Gaefenroda, Germany, 1879. The gnomes stand three-feet tall and cleverly carry electrified lanterns. They once were a whimsical addition to our garden landscape, until one day they disappeared.

Our gnomes were gone. Despite our frantic efforts to find them, we were met with “Whats” and “Whos” by the local authorities. Short of filing a missing persons report, we are still discussing who would have taken them. We ask questions over morning coffee like, “Do you think it was the film crew shooting in the area that week?” or, “What about that guy on the bicycle that use to drive by and salute them everyday?”

It was not until I began my research on the history of gnomes for a garden club lecture that I discovered the true nature of gnomes. Gnomes are mysterious creatures, filled with mischief, and they are known to create havoc in the garden and to sometimes disappear into thin air.

The international Internet travel company, Travelocity, brilliantly scooped this notion of the traveling gnome up. A white-bearded gnome wearing a pointed red cap is seen being “questionably” kidnapped. This Internet gnome icon appears indifferent cities around the world wrapped strategically in rope. The question is, “Did he kidnap himself?”

So popular is the traveling gnome theme that a group called the Garden Liberation Front (GGLF) calls for “An end to oppressive gardening and freedom for garden gnomes to roam everywhere.” This satirical group’s website,, shows pictures of liberators, abducting gnomes, photographing them at international landmarks, and sending the pictures home to their former owners with ransom notes.

With whimsical outrage, a Swiss-based counter group, The International Protection of Garden Gnomes, responded with a fury to the abduction of gnomes staged by the “GGLF”. The Swiss organization is calling for the criminal prosecution of all abductors of garden gnomes around the world.

Well, this all seems much ado about nothing, however, garden gnome owners are taking this very seriously. “Touch my gnome, and you are in big trouble,” is the battle cry of gnome owners. Antique or new, cast iron or clay, big or little, a gnome can be your very personal friend in the garden.


Garden Gnomes trace their lineage to the German state, Thuringia in the town of Graefenroda. It was here, in the 1860’s, that the Griebels, who still produce garden gnomes today, crafted the first gnomes out of terra cotta. Gnomes come in many sizes from a few inches tall to over three feet tall. Because their smallness made it difficult to see them or supposedly capture them, they were considered to possess superhuman powers.

These mythical clever creatures are known to also bring good luck to homeowners. In Germany, small gnomes are placed in the walls or rafters of a house to protect the garden from intruders. Gnomes are also said to have knowledge of hidden treasures and to have powers to foresee the future.

There are several types of gnomes ranging from the classic German figures made of clay, terracotta or ceramics to contemporary mass-produced gnomes made in resin and plastic. The classic gnomes made by the Griebel family in Germany are still produced one at a time. According to their activities, the Griebel gnomes are divided into three groups: There is the “worker gnome” who is equipped with tools for working in the garden like a spade or watering can; and the “leisure gnome” who is usually relaxing and pondering the world as he puffs on a pipe; and the “culture gnome” who depicted reading a book or playing a fine fiddle.

The most common design of the gnome is the well-proportioned little man, usually shown wearing a buttoned jacked and a vest. He almost always is wearing a red cap with a slightly bent tip. He characterizes a cheerful, mellow fellow with his friendly eyes and full beard, framing his round face. He appears to have had a hard day at work and is deeply in thought peering off into the distance.

The heirs of Griebel family have remained loyal to the traditions of their great-grandfather, Phillip Griebel, who first created these gentle, clever creatures. Even today, you can visit their little factory in Germany filled with fairy-tale figures and animals of fired clay. The Griebel Factory even has a Garden Gnome Museum where the history of the garden gnome is colorfully displayed.

There are a few American companies that produce clay gnomes that are finished by hand. The most notable one is Kimmel Gnomes that produces a variety of gnome creatures that are cast from 19th century antique gnomes and from original sculptures of its founder, Welsh artist, Candice Kimmel. The gnomes are glazed inside as well and are considered to be very durable in the garden.

Gnome lovers around the world collect and display gnomes throughout their garden. The gnome population in Germany alone is said to be over twenty-five million. With their floppy hats and clever grin, a gnome in a garden peering from behind a pot of pansies brings a smile to all.

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