Garden statuary has been common in Europe at least since the Renaissance. Among the figures depicted were gobbi (Italian for dwarfs or hunchbacks). In particular, Jacques Callot produced 21 designs for gobbi, engraved and printed in 1616. By the late 18th century, porcelain “House Dwarfs” had begun to be produced, and they remained popular ornaments throughout the 19th Century. In addition, wooden statues of gnomes had been made in Switzerland, around the town of Brienz. Even so, the claim to be the manufacturer of the first garden gnome is hotly contested, but it is possible that Baehr and Maresch of Dresden produced the first ceramic gnomes, having them in stock as early as 1841. From around 1860 onwards, many statues were made in Gräfenroda, a town in Thuringia, Germany, known for its ceramics. Philip Griebel made terracotta animals as decorations, and produced gnomes based on local myths about 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.
The manufacturing of gnomes spread across Germany, with numerous other large and small manufacturers coming in and out of the business, each 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.
Garden gnomes were first introduced to the United Kingdom in 1847 by Sir Charles Isham, 10th Baronet, 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 £1 million. A more recent notable manufacturer of garden gnomes was Tom Major-Ball, father of former United Kingdom Prime Minister John Major.
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 pour la Libération 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 “Where is my Gnome?” series of advertisements). In 2008, a 53-year-old French man in Brittany was arrested on suspicion of stealing upwards of 170 garden gnomes.