A Brief History of Garden Gnomes

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iStock

At the risk of accidentally sounding biblical, we regret to report that gnomes have been banished from the garden. To be a bit more specific, gnome figurines, those whimsical, pointy-hatted denizens of home gardens and front lawns, have been banished from gardens entering England's famed Royal Horticultural Society Chelsea Flower Show, which took place this past weekend during a riot of mostly good weather.

The decree has actually been in place for years, but it's only been this year that the rule was challenged and indeed, openly defied. The worst of it for Chelsea Flower Show administrators was that the offending gnome was introduced by a traitor in their own midst. Jekka McVicar, one of Britain's leading organic growers, a member of the Royal Horticultural Society's ruling council, and herself a 13-time Chelsea gold medalist, hid her own garden mascot, a fisherman by the name of Borage, in the foliage of her Grand Pavilion garden. Oh, the shame.

McVicar defended her gnome, claiming that "gardening can be too serious," and that it's important to have fun, but the RHS wouldn't budge and said that the gnome had to be gone by the open of judging on Thursday. Borage, McVicar says, is going underground, to sow the seeds of his rebellion from below. It's positively Miltonian.

Persona nongrata status at the old Chelsea Flower Show aside, gnomes are fascinating little creatures. We've dug up a little history on the popular garden accessory.

The Common Garden Gnome

Garden gnomes, believe it or not, are not the product of a 20th century lapse in good taste, as their garishly colored clothing and smiling countenances may indicate, but rather an 19th century one. In the second half of the 1800s, German sculptor and potter Phillip Griebel started a business molding ceramic into lifelike busts of animals, a fashionable home and garden decoration at the time. Inspired by the gnome myths of his home (Gräfenroda, Thuringia), he began fashioning small, pointy-hatted ceramic gnomes for gardens; the first gnome went to market in Leipzig in 1884 and was an instant success.

Production was halted during World War II, and following the fall of the Nazis, garden gnomes were banned briefly as the German Democratic Republic rose to power in East Germany. Still, the gnomes managed to pull through and Griebel's garden gnome dynasty exists even now, although in a much diminished capacity, owing to the cheap labor and even cheaper materials coming out of China and Eastern European markets.

Nowadays, garden gnomes can be found in a wide variety of attitudes and poses: Reclining on one elbow, smoking a pipe; fishing with a wee fishing rod; standing proudly, hands on hips; pushing a wheelbarrow; or holding open his robes to reveal his naughty bits.

One can also buy garden gnomes dressed as police officers, although you may want to think twice after the somewhat draconian treatment meted out to Gordon MacKillip, a Cornwall, England man who was threatened with arrest over his police gnome in 2006. According to reports, police told MacKillop, whose solar-powered gnome was dressed in police blues and accompanied by a miniature ceramic Alsatian dog, that his neighbors were complaining about the gnome. MacKillop was served with notice under the Protection From Harassment Act 1997, for "placing a garden gnome with intent to cause harassment."

The Well-Traveled Gnome

The common garden gnome's adorable tackiness and extreme portability has also inspired the popular prank, Gnome Roaming or Gnome-napping. The premise is simple: A neighborhood garden gnome is stolen and sent on adventures. The gnome-nappers usually photograph the gnome's exploits along the way or send postcards to the befuddled gnome owner, before returning the gnome, often with his new photo album of vacation shots, to his garden home. Hilarity ensues.

Despite the resurgence of the prank in recent years, owing to the popularity of the 2001 film Amelie, where the heroine inspires her quiet father to travel by stealing his gnome and sending him on trips with a flight attendant friend, and the Travelocity Roaming Gnome, the prank is at least more than 20 years old. According to urban legends expert David Emry, the first documented case of gnome-napping took place in the mid-1980s, when an Australian family's gnome was taken from their front yard. A few days later, the family received a postcard from the gnome, claiming he was vacationing in Queensland. He returned, two weeks after he went missing, sporting a wicked tan (actually a coating of brown shoe polish).

Of course, there's a sinister side to gnome-napping: In the past few years, people have been arrested for possession of stolen gnomes, and the gnomes even have their own extremist supporters, the Front de Libération des Nains de Jardin or the Garden Gnome Liberation Front. The Front is a French group that claims to have "liberated thousands" of garden gnomes since 1997“ they generally steal the gnomes en masse and then "release" them into the wild. Sometimes more creepily, these liberators, who are typically pictured wearing terrorist/freedom fighter-style balaclavas, set the gnomes up on the steps of a church or, even weirder, hanging by their necks from a bridge. These gnomes don't make it home.

Any good gnome stories out there? Anybody have a favorite gnome, or any strong opinions about gnomes in general?

11 Masks That Will Keep You Safe and Stylish

Design Safe/Designer Face Covers/Its All Goods
Design Safe/Designer Face Covers/Its All Goods

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In 1906, the Bronx Zoo Put a Black Man on Display in the Primates' House

1906 photograph of Ota Benga, described as being taken at Bronx Zoo.
1906 photograph of Ota Benga, described as being taken at Bronx Zoo.
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

When the New York Zoological Park (now the Bronx Zoo) opened in September 1906, people visiting the Primates’ House encountered a startling sight. There, amid the cages full of exotic animals, they found a human: Ota Benga, a member of the Mbuti pygmy tribe from what was then known as the Congo Free State. Though he was just 23 years old, this was not the first time Benga had been publicly displayed as a curiosity.

Benga was brought to America by explorer and missionary Samuel Phillips Verner, who first exhibited him at the notorious “human zoos” of the 1904 World’s Fair. His life before the fair is largely a mystery—as Pamela Newkirk writes in Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga, “Given the various conflicting accounts offered by Verner as to how he acquired Benga, the true story will probably never be known.”

The Man With a Five-Cent Smile

A 1904 St. Louis Post-Dispatch article claimed a tribe had held Benga captive as a slave until Verner purchased him at a slave market. A 1916 New York Times article said Verner met Benga at a Belgian Army station, where soldiers had saved Benga from a cannibalistic tribe. And there were more variations in-between. Beyond that, it’s also thought that Benga had a wife and two children, who were killed either by Belgian forces looking for ivory or a hostile tribe.

In 1904, Verner brought Benga to the U.S., where he displayed him at the St. Louis World Fair (officially called the Louisiana Purchase Exposition). The main draw was his sharpened teeth, which he showed for five cents. Though newspapers at the time said they were shaped to facilitate cannibalism, tooth sharpening was a common form of body modification within Benga’s tribe, and did not indicate someone who noshed on human flesh.

After the fair, Benga returned to Africa with Verner, then later accompanied the missionary back to the United States. According to Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s African American Lives, “Otabenga married a second wife, a Batwa woman who died from snakebite soon afterward. The Batwa blamed Otabenga for her death and shunned him. That decision appears to have strengthened his relationship with Verner.” Though again, Newkirk points out that Verner gave differing versions of events over the years.

By the time Verner brought Benga to New York City, the explorer was broke. Eventually, he contacted William Temple Hornaday, the then-director of what is now the Bronx Zoo, who agreed to temporarily loan Benga an apartment on the grounds. Whether Hornaday had ulterior motives from the start is unclear, but before long, he was displaying Benga as another exhibit.

"Is that a man?"

According to New York Magazine, in his first few weeks, Benga wandered around the grounds of the zoo freely. But soon, Hornaday had his zookeepers urge Benga to play with the orangutan in its enclosure. Crowds gathered to watch. Next, the zookeepers convinced Benga to use his bow and arrow to shoot targets, along with the occasional squirrel or rat. They also scattered some stray bones around the enclosure to suggest the idea of Benga being a savage. Finally, they cajoled Benga into rushing the bars of the cage and baring his whittled teeth at the patrons. Kids were terrified. Some adults were, too—though more of them were just plain curious about Benga. “Is that a man?” one visitor asked.

Hornaday posted a sign in the Primates’ House listing Benga’s height and weight—4 feet, 11 inches tall and 103 pounds—and how he had ended up at the zoo. “Exhibited each afternoon during September,” it read. If Hornaday’s attitude toward his new "acquisition" needed further elaboration, it was summed up in the tone of an article he wrote for the zoological society’s bulletin:

"Ota Benga is a well-developed little man, with a good head, bright eyes, and a pleasing countenance. He is not hairy, and is not covered by the ‘downy fell’ described by some explorers ... He is happiest when at work, making something with his hands."

Following a piece in the New York Times, word of the exhibit spread. "We send our missionaries to Africa to Christianize the people," the Times quoted Reverend Dr. R. S. MacArthur as saying, "and then we bring one here to brutalize him." In an editorial, the Times conceded that “the show is not exactly a pleasant one,” but that Benga "is probably enjoying himself as well as he could anywhere in this country, and it is absurd to make moan over the imagined humiliation and degradation he is suffering" and concluded that the best place for him was likely the forests of his homeland.

“He Refuses To Be Looked At”

Soon, a group of Black clergymen was leading protests around the city. After a threat of legal action, Benga was let out of the cage, and once again allowed to roam the grounds of the zoo. But by then, he was a celebrity. The zoo was attracting up to 40,000 visitors a day, many of whom followed Benga wherever he went, jeering and laughing at him. Benga spoke little English, so couldn’t express his frustration. Instead he lashed out, wounding a visitor with his bow and arrow and threatening a zookeeper with a knife.

Calls for Benga’s freedom increased. Hornaday wrote to Verner, suggesting he come take him away or place him in an orphanage. Verner, who had gone south in search of work, wrote back and suggested giving Benga “a dose of some sedative” temper his outbursts. In another letter, along with a message to Benga, Verner promised to come get the young man, and instructed Hornaday to send him to North Carolina.

On September 28, 1906, Benga left the zoo and was taken in by the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum. A 1907 newspaper article noted, “Many persons who visit the orphanage to get a glimpse of Ota wrestling with dog, cat, cow, and other preliminaries of the English language are disappointed. He refuses to be looked at since his experience in the monkey cages.” Benga moved to Lynchburg, Virginia, and went on to learn some English and found work at a tobacco factory, alongside other odd jobs, but grew depressed and homesick. In 1916, he died by suicide.

The Wildlife Conservation Society, which runs the Bronx Zoo, had long been under pressure to acknowledge the issues surrounding Benga’s display. On July 29, 2020, in the wake of the U.S.’s recent, ongoing reckoning with systemic racism, the organization published a statement from WCS President and CEO Cristián Samper condemning and apologizing for how the institution treated Benga. As part of the statement, the organization revealed that it had made all of its archival material related to Benga available to the public.