Since my head is mostly wrapped around gardening right now, I thought I’d carry the theme into this week’s Pickin’ & Pokin’ column. For some reason I thought I’d do a piece on the edger gardening tool. Such a handy implement. I use mine multiple times throughout the year for creating sharp edges and to cut into sod. Well, I thought I’d check on the history of garden edgers but just as I was googling “history of…” that little list of suggestions came up and one of them was gnomes, of all things!
Now, I personally put garden gnomes right up there with pink flamingos on my list of least-wanted garden accessories, but I got sucked into a couple of online articles; they’ve got quite a history and are even quite collectible. In “History of Gnomes” by Sarah White (at garden.lovetoknow.com), it says the first mass-produced garden gnomes came from Germany in the 1800s and these are the “real deal” versions worth seeking out if you want to start your gnome collection. Philipp Griebel and August Heissner are the two noted names in their early manufacturing years. The Heissner gnomes became known around the world.
The origins of the garden gnome are actually quite older than this period, though. The luck-bringing, sometimes mischievous little garden helpers probably are based on actual human “gnomes” early as second century AD. According to a wonderfully illustrative piece, “The Story Behind Garden Gnomes Is More Compelling Than You Might Think” by Elisa Parhad (at gardencollage.com), the Roman Emperor Hadrian had hermits living throughout the gardens surrounding his villa. This odd practice was recorded happening again in the 1700s when wealthy English landowners would hire a person to be an ornamental hermit in their estate gardens. There were rules they had to follow too. They had to live in an unheated rustic little abode… the hermitage. They must be silent, have disheveled clothes and uncut hair/beards and should let their finger and toenails grow long. Wow! This was Georgian England and having a living recluse on your grounds not only brought luck, but also provided another indicator of the landowner’s social status.
In the 1600s, European garden statuary often included some type of gobbi, which is Italian for “dwarf” or “hunchback,” and the idea of these little creatures protecting the gardens throughout the nighttime hours was very much propagated by Germans whose folklore often included gnomes, faeries, trolls and other woodland inhabitants. What really kicked off the clay garden gnomes that are still collectible was when Sir Charles Isham brought 21 of the little terra cotta gnomes to his garden in England. Well, beauty and taste are in the eye of the beholder and Charles’ daughters thought them to be very tacky and removed all but one of them that was hidden from sight. Decades later, he was discovered and crowned “Lampy,” the oldest gnome in the world.
The German collectible gnomes usually look markedly different from the new plaster or plastic versions you can find today. The current ones being manufactured are more cartoonish and probably styled after the Disney classic, “Snow White & the Seven Dwarves.”
So, there you go. Paying a little respect to Lampy and all of his reclusive little friends. Be sure not to turn your back on him in the garden at dusk though. Remember, he can be a bit mischievous.