History in the Home Garden


August, 2017


Many people have lawn gnomes in their garden. But with their humanoid features and their colorful, patchwork clothes, where did these ornaments originate? Where would someone even get the idea to decorate their lawn with tiny people? Well, the answer may surprise you. In this week’s blog, we are going to explore the construction of the ideology surrounding lawn gnomes and how they came to be.

Ornamental Hermitage

The modern day gnome can be traced back to the practice of ornamental hermitage in Gregorian England as well as Scotland and Ireland. At this time, the wealthy were obsessed with appearing intelligent. Intelligence was often linked to sadness which was referred to as melancholy. However, constantly appearing sad tended to make people actually begin to feel sad, so the rich would outsource that problem. The very wealthy would put ads in papers asking for people, usually men, to dress in druid’s costumes and live on the grounds of their expansive gardens for upwards of seven years. This is where the dunce cap worn by most gnomes originates, as well as the harlequin clothing.

garden gnomes

Stipulations for ornamental hermits often included: never speaking, never bathing, never cutting the hair or nails, and generally appearing lonesome and contemplative. Sometimes employers required their ornamental hermits read poetry to guests or serve them at mealtimes, appearing kind-hearted in conversation but solemn during all other times. While requirements varied from estate to estate, some things remained similar across all accounts: hermits were to live in a small house in the gardens, were meant to be seen at any hour of the day by passing guests, and were to appear introspective and intelligent. For this, a wealthy employer would provide food and pay a sum of money, usually in full once the person had completed the contracted time.

Unfortunately, many people had a hard time dealing with the solitude and would quit prior to the completion of their contract; therefore, they would not be paid. By the end of the 18th century, most ornamental hermits had disappeared, although some of the upper class still used mannequins or tiny automatons which were machines meant to look like moving humans.

garden gnomes

Differences from Today

Today, the garden gnome looks quite different from their Gregorian counterparts. Most notably, they are not living people in a garden. However, the ceramic gnomes we see today typically dress in similar fashion to the ornamental hermits once employed by the wealthy. Dirty, ripped, patchwork-type clothing and ruddy boots with a bright dunce cap remain the attire of today’s garden gnomes.

Another stark difference from the ornamental hermits of the past is that modern day gnomes are typically smiling. They are meant to appear as jovial garden workers living happily outdoors. This comes as a huge surprise when we understand the melancholy hermits of the past were the inspiration for the lawn ornaments of today. Modern garden gnomes are supposed to bring joy to passersby, not remind them of their own mortality; a drastic shift from the old job requirements.

Final Thoughts

Next time you’re ready to pick up a cute gnome for your home garden you’ll know the history behind them. Now, each time you find a new garden guardian, you may take some time to think of the ornamental hermits of the past and how they constructed the mythology surrounding the garden gnomes we know and love today.

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