20th century developments in fabrication, such as plastics, play a key role in the history of the garden gnome. Technological progress, ever the bull in the china shop of society, definitely altered the trajectory of these pointy-hatted denizens.
Synthetic materials, like bakelite, made the manufacturing of objects much easier in the early 20th century. Over time, the use of plastics in manufacturing became essential to turning out consumer goods in mass quantities. The mass production of garden ornaments, particularly in America, took off in the post-war years. This was the era of pop-art and, for a few glorious years, kitsch was King.
In 1957, Don Featherstone (aptly named) invented the lawn decoration perhaps most associated with this period: the pink flamingo. These plastic ornaments recalled tropical locales and became synonymous with the kitsch aesthetic in the ’60s. Garden gnomes became associated with this aesthetic as well, as it was now possible to mass produce plastic versions of Griebel and Heissner’s terracotta designs to be sold across America and around the world. Disney-fied versions, reproductions of 19th century designs and new, sometimes vulgar designs of gnomes were produced in this way and sold to consumers. The popularity of the lawn ornaments spread. Unfortunately, the kitsch aesthetic soon came to be reviled for its apparent tackiness and the inferior qualities of cheap plastic. In their book The Guide to United States Popular Culture, Browne & Browne note that Featherstone’s flamingos became an “elaborate upper-class joke” with ethnic overtones. Gnomes were also seen as a low-brow middle-class affectation.
The classism of the gnome did not begin with kitsch; it may in fact be one of its most enduring qualities. Take, for instance, the story of Poděbrady’s trpaslík.
In 1938, in the Czech town of Poděbrady, this mechanical gnome was installed on the colonnade to chime the hours of the day on his large cast iron mushroom. This garden gnome’s origin was not that of his cheaply-made counterparts, who would storm markets en masse post-war. Nor was he created under the artful potter’s eye that generated the fine terracotta figures of the previous century. He was an automaton crafted in metal, a robot, reflecting the labour and industry of a particular culture and a particular time. Of course, he bears all the surface hallmarks of the garden gnome– how could he not? Brightly painted, red-pointed hat, cheerful cherub cheeks exuding a general air of mischief. His pedigree, unfortunately, did not count for much once the garden gnome became associated with kitsch. In the ’60s, predictably, the trpaslík was removed by town officials for being “a relic from the bourgeois past”. In 1989, when the gnome was perhaps riding a resurgence in popularity or the administration sought to embrace counter culture, the mayor of the town launched a search to relocate the gnome. One elderly resident, it seemed, had adopted the gnome following his expulsion, and she was amenable to returning it into the town’s charge. The gnome can be found today, I believe, restored to his proper place in Lázeňský Park (I would need confirmation on whether or not he’s still chiming).
For more on Poděbrady’s chiming gnome, and gnomes in the Czech Republic more generally, here’s a 6-minute tour from 2006 of an exhibit at the Roztoky’s Museum of Central Bohemia, courtesy of Radio Praha. You’ll want to skip to about the 4:40 mark for the bit about Poděbrady and its trpaslík.
Even earlier, elsewhere in Europe we can identify parallels that illustrate the social frictions highlighted by the gnome. It is ironic, maybe, that the gnome’s introduction in Britain is credited to an aristocrat when its associations today are firmly middle class. When Sir Charles Isham died in 1903, he left his estate and his 21 Griebel gnomes to his two daughters. Their disdain for the tacky statues ensured that they were unceremoniously tossed out of Lamport Hall. What became of the original British gnomes is anyone’s guess. The gnome, it seems, has always been on the wrong side of good taste.
According to George Drower, author of Garden Heroes and Villains, by the late nineteenth century it was considered “tasteless” for any garden statuary to be adorned with paint. Beyond a few wealthy eccentrics like Charles Isham and Frank Crisp, polite society frowned on the garden gnome and his ilk, to put it mildly. In 1913, when the prestigious Chelsea Flower Show was first launched, the Royal Horticulture Society guaranteed that any remotely whimsical statues would be kept out of their high class gardens. Article 15 of the show schedule forbade “highly coloured figures, gnomes, fairies or any similar creatures, actual or mythical for use as garden ornaments”. The ban held a full century, lifted only in 2013, and even then not without controversy.
The exercise of taste, or aesthetic judgment, plays a central role in the complex social history of garden gnomes. In my next post, I will mine this concept and its treatment, from Kant to Bourdieu, for insight into how the evolution in our understanding of aesthetics is reflected in the story of gnomes.