A Brief History of Garden Gnomes

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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?

Some People Can Control When They Get Goosebumps—and Scientists Are Stumped

This woman might be controlling her goosebumps with her mind.
This woman might be controlling her goosebumps with her mind.
MyetEck/iStock via Getty Images

Travis Carrasco, 29, is a mechanical engineer in Las Vegas, Nevada. For all intents and purposes, he’s a normal individual. He loves coloring with colored pencils; likes leadership books and the color green.

But in youth, his relatives took notice of Carrasco’s peculiar tendency to sway his head back and forth. He told them he was giving himself goosebumps. They didn’t believe him.

They were wrong.

According to the low end of informal estimates, about one in every 1500 people have something called Voluntarily Generated Piloerection (VGP)—the ability to consciously give themselves goosebumps. The weird thing is, VGP shouldn’t exist. The phenomenon both perplexes and intrigues neurophysiologists by defying conventional understanding of how the unconscious nervous system operates.

A mammal’s hair follicle clings to the skin via a tiny muscle. When this muscle contracts, the hair will stand, the skin around it will undergo bump-shaped distortion, and voilagoosebumps.

For the 1499 people in this statistical metaphor, goosebumps are completely involuntary. The tiny muscle, called the arrector pili, is made of smooth muscle fibers. And like other smooth muscles of the body—those that handle digestion, blood flow, respiration, and so on—they are unconsciously regulated. The nerves attached to them lie in the autonomic nervous system, the part of the nervous system dedicated to managing bodily functions you aren’t supposed to control consciously, like heart rate or pupil dilation.

Voluntary Generated Piloerection "Shouldn't Be Possible"

When James Heathers, a physiologist at Northeastern University, came across an engineering paper referencing the only three single-individual case studies of VGP in medical history, he couldn’t believe it. 

“That was catnip for me,” Heathers tells Mental Floss, his voice cracking with excitement. “[VGP] shouldn’t be possible. That’s not how the autonomic nervous system works; what it does. This reason that it’s called autonomic—autonomos—it means ‘without thought.’”

Heathers, who normally spends his time in data science and patient-centered electronic health development, got to work on goosebumps as a scientific side-hustle. In 2018, he authored a paper in the journal PeerJ making the first published attempt at defining the prevalence and properties of VGP.

He wanted to know exactly how it works. What do people think about when they give themselves goosebumps? In what situations are they deployed? What personality traits are common in people with VGP?

Heathers sifted through obscure internet forums and sent out surveys, and ended up evaluating 32 participants with VGP using standardized personality tests. He found that those with VGP who responded to his survey had unusually ‘open’ personalities compared to the average person.

“They seem to be more creative; they imagine more,” Heathers says. “They pay more attention to themselves. They track their emotions more closely. They have a preference for new stuff … That’s either an artifact of people who are more open being more likely to answer a survey on the internet for fun, because they want to know about themselves; or it’s a component of the experience itself.”

A "Sixth Sense"

You may be thinking, Wait, I’m open-minded, and I can give myself goosebumps just by thinking of nails scratching a chalkboard. But Heathers is clear; that’s not VGP. 

“VGP has no mental or cognitive component,” Heathers says. “The vast majority of people who do it, in the way that we’ve defined it, simply have a really straightforward pathway. A lot of the time, they focus on a point, behind their ear or on their neck or at the back of the head. They don’t have to think of anything.”

In other words, those with VGP need only think about getting goosebumps—not about the situations that would, under normal circumstances, give them goosebumps.

“Basically, it starts at the base of my neck, the bottom of my head and the backside,” Carrasco, the engineer with VGP, tells Mental Floss. “When I trigger it, it feels like a bunch of sparks travel throughout my entire body, and I can do it repetitively, over and over and over and over and over. However, the strongest sensation is only the first couple times.”

While the induced goosebumps are stronger than those generated unconsciously, Carrasco says he can maximize the strength and resolution of his goosebumps by swaying his head from side to side.

“It’s a weird rhythm, but if I sway my neck, it triggers a really strong response,” Carrasco says. “You know when you squeeze your eyes really tight, and sometimes you hear pressure building, and it’s really just squeezing a muscle in your ears or your eyes. It’s similar to that, but when [the goosebumps] happen, sometimes I can hear that same pressure … it feels relaxing. It feels good.”

Carrasco likes to think it’s a sixth sense. He’s never met anyone else with VGP. But he notices that his son of 19 months sways his head a lot, too. And Carrasco can’t help but wonder, “Does he have the same ability I have?”

Maybe it’s genetic; scientists don't know. Whatever the cause, 30 to 40 times a week, you’ll catch Carrasco exercising his hidden superpower—a thought that just might give you goosebumps.

7 of the World's Quirkiest Statues

The Jolly Green Giant looms over Blue Earth, Minnesota.
The Jolly Green Giant looms over Blue Earth, Minnesota.
Laurie Shaull, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Public sculpture can inspire, illuminate, and provoke curiosity. Look at the Lincoln Memorial or Auguste Rodin’s famed Thinker. But not all statues reach such lofty heights. Take a look at some monuments that stretch the boundaries of artistic expression.

1. Charles La Trobe // Melbourne, Australia

The Charles La Trobe statue in Melbourne, Australia is pictured
Charles La Trobe displays some inverted thinking.
Phil Lees, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Charles Joseph La Trobe was Victoria, Australia's first lieutenant governor, a post he held through 1854. La Trobe is celebrated for his efforts to bring the Royal Botanic Gardens, the State Library, and the Museum of Victoria to life. In 2004, sculptor Charles Robb debuted a sculpture of La Trobe at La Trobe University. The work is notable for being completely inverted, with La Trobe resting on his head. According to Robb, the point is that educational institutions should strive to turn ideas on their heads.

2. The Jolly Green Giant // Blue Earth, Minnesota

The Jolly Green Giant statue in Blue Earth, Minnesota is pictured
The Green Giant statue offers 55 feet of vegetable advocacy.
Laurie Shaull, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

It’s rare that food mascots receive a 55-foot tall tribute, but this monument to the Jolly Green Giant in Blue Earth, Minnesota, proves to be an exception. The Giant, of Green Giant vegetables fame, was unveiled in 1979 after a campaign by radio station owner Paul Hedberg, who wanted to lure travelers into the town. Curiously, Green Giant (the company) didn’t offer to fund this enormous and permanent advertisement, which was constructed using donations from area businesses. Hedberg wanted to install a button that would emit a “Ho, ho, ho!” sound, but ran out of money.

3. Man Hanging Out // Prague, Czech Republic

The 'Man Hanging Out' statue in Prague is pictured
Sigmund Freud is left dangling.
Greger Ravik, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Artist David Cerny thought he had the ideal way to depict the warring psychological state of Sigmund Freud, the famed psychoanalyst who was born in Freiburg (now Příbor, Czech Republic). Cerny said the statue, which debuted in 1996 and remains on display in Old Town Prague, is intended to depict Freud as he weighs his options between life and death—whether to hold on or to let go. At various times, police and first responders have mistaken the sculpture for a suicide attempt.

4. Transcendence // Portland, Oregon

Salmon sculpture in Portland Oregon
Transcendence depicts a large salmon breaking through a brick wall.
mike krzeszak, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Walk near Southwest Salmon Street in Portland and you won’t be able to miss Transcendence, a sculpture of a salmon that appears to be breaking directly through the building where Southpark Seafood is located. The 11-foot long bronze fish was created by Keith Jellum and seems to capture the irreverent mood that defines Portland.

5. The Fork // Springfield, Missouri

The giant fork sculpture in Springfield, Missouri is pictured
The attention-grabbing fork of Springfield, Missouri.

At 35 feet tall and weighing 11 tons, Springfield’s immense fork is among the world’s largest utensils. The fork was initially constructed for a restaurant by ad agency Noble and Associates in the 1990s. When the restaurant closed, it was relocated to the agency’s building, which is also home to the Food Channel. A fork in Creede, Colorado, is 5 feet longer but a mere 600 pounds.

6. Viaje Fantástico // Havana, Cuba

Sculpture of a naked lady on a chicken
Viaje Fantastico is one of the world's weirdest sculptures.

Those who gaze upon Viaje Fantástico in Havana—which consists of a naked woman riding a chicken and wielding a fork—will have to find its meaning for themselves. Located in the city’s Plaza Vieja, the sculpture was installed in 2012 by artist Roberto Fabelo, who has yet to provide context for the piece. Because the woman is nude, some have speculated it might be a nod to Cuba’s history of prostitution. The fork and chicken could symbolize that she has sold her body for sustenance. We may never know for sure.

7. Boll Weevil Monument // Enterprise, Alabama

The Boll Weevil Monument in Enterprise, Alabama is pictured
The Boll Weevil Monument in Enterprise, Alabama.
Martin Lewison, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

This elegant ode to pestilence was erected in 1919 in honor of the boll weevil, an insect that destroyed cotton crops in the area. Why celebrate it? Farmers had to look to other crops like peanuts, which helped diversify the region’s agricultural economy. The statue, which is near the Depot Museum, is a replica of the original that was damaged by vandals in 1998.

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