Gnome Beginnings

Today gnomes are generally thought of as fun and whimsical garden accessory, but they were once much more highly regarded. The painted gnome as we now know was created in Germany toward the end of the 19th Century when there was a large ceramic industry making household and garden ornaments and manufacturers capitalised on the popularity of gnomes. They were originally advertised as garden figures and door guardians.

At Gnome lands we see all sorts of gnome characters. To be clear we do not prefer one above the other as we are well aware that a ‘right fit’ gnome is very personal to their owners!

We’d like to share a bit more about how high-quality ceramic gnomes are made, in particular those that are grounded in a rich history and come from original designs and moulds.

A giant among gnomes

- Philipp Griebel

The village of Gräfenroda in the German state of Thuringia, claims to be the birth place of the garden gnome. A young boy Phillip Griebel was apprenticed to Heinrich Dornheim, a ceramic maker in the village. He went on to found his own factory in 1874 making in common with other local ceramic producers a variety of terracotta figures. Soon after this, Griebel began to produce the gnome figures.

Griebel’s gnomes like those made by other manufacturers at the time, were in the image of miners who had once worked in the region. He created them with their red hats designed to protect their neck and shoulders from loose stones, their working clothes, their lantern and wheel barrow or basket. At its peak the factory produced around 300 different gnome characters in different sizes. Philipp Griebel’s company continued to prosper under his son Wendelin and his son Willi and through today under Reinhard.

How gnomes are made. Willi Griebel’s son Reinhard is still using the original patters and moulds, resumed production of the traditional high-quality ceramic garden gnomes, which are generally recognised as the ‘Gräfenroda gnome’. Today the company is the only ceramic manufacturer remaining in Gräfenroda where signs proudly declare the town to be Geburtsort der Gartenzwerge – ‘birthplace of the garden gnome’. Adjacent to the factory is a small museum which exhibits old and new gnomes.

Helped by his wife Iris, Reinhard fashions the little figures by hand and gives them all names such as Baldwin, Anton, Max, Heinz and many others. Using local Thuribgian clay which he mixes with his own ingredients, Reinhard creates a slurry which is poured into a plaster mould made form the original patterns handed from father to son. surplus clay is poured back our and the remainder allowed to set before the mould is taken apart.

The new gnome is taken out of the moulds and left to dry and if in parts assembled. It is rubbed down and polished to remove seams and blemishes before being placed in the kiln and baked at temperature of 1080 degrees centigrade.

When the gnome has cooled, it is ready for painting – first the gnome’s face and beard are painted, giving it its unique character, then the clothing and last but not least, the red hat. Finally, the gnome is varnished. A perfectly crafted garden gnome is now ready to be packed and send it its travels to take up residence and pride of place in a new home.

Many of these early gnome figures were large and superbly sculpted and it is not surprising that that they often found their way into affluent homes and gardens. Although beautifully made, they mainly followed the ‘dwarfish’ concept and adhered to the heavy Victorian fashion – they were not brightly painted, nor did they portray the merry smiling little man we expect to see today. This image of the gnome continued virtually unchanged until the 1930’s when in 1937, Walt Disney Productions created their animated film ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ based on the Brothers Grimm tale of ‘Little Snow White’. Disney softened the Brothers Grimm story by taking out or changing the more gory passages and although he kept the dwarfs as miners, he invented cute characters for them, with names and endearing features. Doc, Grumpy, Happy, Sneezy, Bashful, Sleepy and Dopey (who did not incidentally have a beard), became household favourites everywhere and changed forever the popular image of the gnome.

However, it was not until after the Second World War, when production resumed, that the gnome’s image was softened and colours brightened, and makers such as Griebel and Heissner started producing the gnome as we know it and which was, by then, becoming universally recognised as a ‘garden gnome’. Although the Scandinavian tradition of Christmas gnomes continued, the garden gnome began to enter the public consciousness as a colourful and cheerful character who went on to brighten many suburban gardens.

These brightly coloured characters became very popular as a garden decoration in may countries during the so called ‘innocent 50’s’ but gradually they began to earn a reputation as being naff or kitsch in the ‘groovy’ 60’s’ and ‘swinging 70’s’. In the UK they were believed to adversely affect the value of a house and house sellers were advised ‘to hide then behind the begonias until the signature is on the dotted line’.

But though the question that is most often posed is ‘where on earth did garden gnomes come from?’, the question we should be asking is, 'where are they going?'.

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