The past decade has had its share of curious cultural obsessions — everything from pirates to leggings to Miley Cyrus — but perhaps one of the most bizarre was the renaissance of the garden gnome. Those mischievous terracotta lawn ornaments are native to Europe, where they were popular among the gardening set in the 19th century. After World War II, when the German porcelain factories were in disarray, plastic imitations of the originals began popping up, painted in more garish hues and posed in more, um, creative ways. Since the 1950s, over on this side of the Atlantic, garden gnomes have come all the way from kitschy-creepy 1950s decor to getting their own 3D animated adventure, the inevitably bard-displeasing Gnomeo and Juliet. From Amelie to R.L. Stine to last year’s halloween costumes, we trace the pop culture history of these lawn critters after the jump.
The World of David the Gnome, 1987
The popular 1980s Spanish cartoon series The World of David the Gnome was imported to the US in the early 1990s and included in Nickelodeon’s Nick Jr. line-up. It featured the friendly David — who though not explicitly a lawn gnome, sure looked like one — traipsing around and helping his forest creatures.
R. L. Stine’s Revenge of the Lawn Gnomes, 1995
The garden gnome as object of cult fascination — and possible horror-film villain — picked up steam in the mid-1990s thanks to an installment of R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps. On the show (and in the book), the gnomes come alive at night and wreak destruction with their evil, ceramic tools. The transition from lame to potentially frightening? A sure sign that gnomes were about to become cool.
The Garden Gnome Liberation Front, 1997
Le Front pour la Libération des Nains de Jardin (FLNJ) — or the Garden Gnome Liberation Front — was a group of French pranksters dedicated to “liberating” garden gnomes from the lawns of the French populace. In 1997 alone, the group stole 150 gnomes, claiming that gnomes deserved lives free of the expectation to be lawn decorations. The group has been mostly dormant since the late 1990s, but every few years — as in 2006, when 80 gnomes disappeared from the French town of Limousin–the FLNJ strikes again.
The FLNJ’s gnome freeing sometimes included taking the garden gnome and photographing it in exotic locations, then sending pictures to the gnome’s owner as part of an elaborate prank. Inspired by the FLNJ’s mischief, Jean-Pierre Jeunet included a gnome subplot in Amélie, in which the heroine convinces her father to leave his claustrophobic surroundings by entrusting his beloved gnome with an air stewardess friend, who documents the gnome’s progress around the world.
Travelocity’s “Roaming Gnome” Ads, 2004
Playing off the traveling gnome prank, Travelocity introduced an ad campaign in 2004 entitled “Where is My Gnome?” that featured a stolen gnome traveling the world in luxury. Since then, the gnome has become Travelocity’s official mascot, though now he is no longer being held against his will.
Half-Life: Episode Two, 2007
It wasn’t long before video games picked up on the gnome device too. In Half-Life: Episode 2, one goal requires the player to carry around a garden gnome with them until you find a rocket that will launch him into space, unlocking one of the game’s levels.
Ottmar Hörl’s Dance With the Devil, 2009
German artist Ottmar Hörl gained international attention for his 2009 installation piece Dance With the Devil, which featured 1,250 plastic garden gnomes posed in a Nazi salute. The controversial exhibit had to clear the German courts before it went on, owing to the ban against displaying Nazi symbols in the country.
Lawn Gnome Halloween Costume, 2010
The past few years have led to gnome saturation, as this terrifying/cute toddler garden gnome costume demonstrates. You can now buy gnomes in every possible position and in any kind of regalia — anything from Star Wars gnomes to (seriously) Gnome Chomsky. Maybe it’s time for lawn flamingos to make their comeback?