For centuries, gnomes have enjoyed an international following. Gnomes and their cohorts -- fairies, leprechauns, trolls and other fantastical spirits -- have populated children's books, illustrations and folklore for generations. As earthly spirits, gnomes have appeared in English literature since the 16th century. In the frontispiece of Erasmus Darwin's The Botanic Garden (1791), gnomes are referred to as "the guards and guides of Nature's chemic toil."
Jean Yves Jouannais suggests in his book Les Nains, les jardins (Gnomes, Gardens) that gnomes have long been part of the collective unconscious. He points to their appearance in ancient cultures in various incarnations. Among them:
- Dwarf gods of Egypt, Greece, Persia and Turkey
- Medieval folklore and fairy tales of Northern Europe, with forests filled with goblins, trolls, elves, fairies and leprechauns.
- Gnomes in Germany are known as zwergen.
- In Denmark, gnomes are nissen.
- In Holland they are known as kabouter.
- In France, a gnome is naim.
- The Swedish gnome, the tomte, is a treasured part of the country's cultural heritage. Among other virtues, tomtes were benevolent spirits that watched over farms, helped with chores, talked to animals and brought luck to the farmer -- but only if the farmer was kind to his animals and family.
Sir Charles Isham of Lamport, England, introduced the first gnome to his garden in 1867, according to Gnomes by Vivian Russell (Frances Lincoln; April 1, 2005). Twenty years earlier, Isham built a 90-foot rockery planted with dwarf conifers and alpines, and it took him two decades to come up with the idea of placing gnomes throughout the landscape. Isham's garden gnomes came from Nuremburg, Germany.
Why gnomes? For starters, they are considered to be optimists. Dwarfs (sometimes thought of interchangeably with gnomes) were frequent characters in Grimm fairy tales, and dwarf figures were believed to bring good fortune to a home if placed indoors or in the gardens. In addition to gnomes' kindness to animals, gnomes in some cultures blended in with the gift-giving generosity of Santa-like figures. Gnomes, it would seem, were a welcome guest inside or outside the house.