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Gnome on the Range: A Short History of the Roaming Gnome

March 29, 2010

As the category of world-traveler mascots, few dwarf the gnome in importance.  We all are familiar with the dunce-hatted dwarf who seems to have ticked the box on every iconic tourist photo the world over.

Some of us may have made his acquaintance through Amélie, and her 2001 eponymous film of 2001.

Amelie's father receives a postcard from his traveling gnome

In it, her father laments the disappearance of his garden gnome, only to find himself receiving photographic evidence in his mailbox of his gnomes global galavants.

Others of us may know the little bearded fellow as Travelocity’s mascot, the Roaming Gnome: Denouncer of Travel Myths, a 2004 adoption no doubt influenced by Miss Amélie Poulain. Or we may simply know him through friends who bring him along on all of their backpacking expeditions.

But exactly where did this wizened world traveler come from?  And how was he freed from his garden?

Follow the ‘read more’ below for a short history of our travel mascot:

Gnome Genealogy

Scholars who have turned their great minds to garden gnomes have suggested that they are in fact descendants of the Greco-Roman fertility god, Priapus, whose statue was often found in ancient gardens…


According to folklore (and, judging by his ample endowments, probably unlike Priapus) gnomes spend their nights helping out in the gardens in which they live.

They symbolize honesty, integrity and hard work, and are regarded as good luck charms in one’s house and garden. Country folk will often put gnomes in the rafters of barns so that they can keep a watchful eye on animals as well as the crops.

The Garden Gnome’s Garden of Eden

Philip Griebel

The first garden gnomes were made in Germany in the mid-1800s. In 1874 Philipp Griebel opened his own ceramics factory which is still run today by his great great grandson, Reinhardt.

The little ceramic figurines quickly spread across Germany into France and England, and wherever gardening was a serious hobby.

Early gnomes were considerably less cuddly than their modern counterparts, looking more like misshapen dwarfs. The familiar pointed red hat that we see on many garden gnomes today is modeled after the hat that was once worn by miners in the mountains of south-east Germany. A theory that miners of small stature came from the island of Crete around 1,500 BC to dig for gold and silver in parts of Europe, including southeast Germany, may account for the origins of the mining dwarf.

Banished from the Garden: Gaining Innocence

The production of gnomes was banned under the Nazis.  When it resumed after WWII, the image of the gnome changed, influenced by Disney’s 1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, to reflect the more happy-go-lucky appearance of the Disney gnomes. Thus was born the cheerful character who graces so many suburban gardens.

In 1960 the first plastic gnomes were manufactured in Germany. This began the true golden age of garden gnomes. Influenced by Disney, manufacturers started to diversify the gnome’s range of activities (playing music, fishing, playing sports etc.) Today it is estimated that there are 20 million garden gnomes in Germany- that is one for every 4 Germans!

One of my favourite

The Exploitation (and Liberation) of the Innocent

Fueled by the belief that garden gnomes were being ripped from their northern woodland homes and enslaved into forced garden-work, in 1997 a group of Frenchmen formed le Front pour la Libération des Nains de Jardin (the Garden Gnome Liberation Front).  Over the course of the year, they stole over 150 gnomes from gardens and “freed them from a life of miserable solitude” by returning them to the forests.  The Front’s leader was given a suspended prison sentence and fined for the stolen gnomes.

With the incarceration of the Liberation Front leader, the movement went underground, re-emerging in eastern France  in 1998 when eleven gnomes were found dangling by their necks underneath a bridge with the attached suicide note:

“When you read these few words, we will no longer be a part of your selfish world, where we serve merely as pretty decoration.”

Luckily for other desperate gnomes, they now have their own Isreal.  Except it’s in Italy (Tuscany, no less). The town of Barga has established itself as a European Gnome Sanctuary where gnomes can live and roam in peace with their human counterparts. They even have their own radio station (Barga Gnome Radio, of course).

Now to figure out how I can be ‘liberated’ to Tuscany.  Willing to do some weeding.  Will send postcards.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 6, 2010 9:01 am

    Great piece!
    Travelocity’s Roaming Gnome is now even making appearances on chatroulette:

  2. Elizabeth permalink
    April 21, 2010 10:51 pm

    Fascinating account. Thanks so much for sharing.

  3. james permalink
    September 3, 2010 1:08 pm

    i am 2 this day still unsure of the roaming gnome’s accent.

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