They may be garden mascots today but, as Bill Langer explains, gnomes have their origins in the Mineral Kingdom and were once thought to hold the secrets to treasures and ores.
Gnomes, dwarfs and trolls originated in Gräfenroda, a small town in Thuringia, Germany, located deep in the land of fairy tales like those told by the Brothers Grimm. These diminutive creatures were once thought to be living beings – guards of the earth and the Mineral Kingdom – and keepers of hidden treasures and undiscovered ores.
In the 1870s, craftsmen in Gräfenroda manufactured high quality, hand painted ceramic gnomes, which were shipped throughout Europe and much of the world. Many gnomes were large (some over three feet tall) and beautifully made with exquisite detail in their faces and clothing. Many found their way into the gardens of affluent homes.
Folklore says that the inspiration for gnomes came from small-statured miners in southeast Germany. Even the familiar pointed red hat was a representation of the hat worn by those miners. It is fitting that the images of these protectors of the Mineral Kingdom were enshrined in painted ceramics, a product involving mined materials.
Ceramic gnomes were – and still are – created by a process referred to as slip casting. An original pattern commonly is created from clay (a mined product). A multi-part plaster of Paris mould is made of the pattern. (Plaster of Paris is manufactured from gypsum, a mined product.)
The plaster mould is filled with slip, clay that can be poured as a liquid. Water and special chemicals, such as sodium silicate (manufactured from Trona and silica sand, both mined products), are added to clay to reduce its plasticity, thus reducing the water needed to get the clay to flow smoothly.
Plaster of Paris is porous, so when slip is poured into the mould the plaster absorbs water from the slip, causing clay to collect and thicken where it is in contact with the plaster mould. When sufficient clay has built up on the mould, the remaining slip is drained off. The mould is set aside until the remaining clay dries to a leathery consistency. Then the clay casting is removed from the mould and polished to remove seams and blemishes.
The gnome is fired in a kiln at about 982°C (or 1800°F), after which skilled artists apply paint (made from mined products) to the gnome’s face, beard, clothing, and red hat.
Most of the gnomes produced in Germany in the 19th century were not the merry little folks we see today. That image came about in 1937, when Walt Disney Productions created Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale. Disney’s dwarfs were miners but had endearing features and cute names: Bashful, Doc, Dopey, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy and Sneezy.
Plastic garden gnomes were first manufactured in 1960. The little miners took on new activities including sports, fishing, gardening and playing musical instruments. In 1976, Dutch painter Rien Poortvliet and writer Wil Huygen created their famous Gnomes book. Poortvliet’s illustrations (above) depicted gnomes as diminutive, stout beings, with tall, conical hats, the male gnome always with a long white beard. They were subsequently modelled as poly-resin figures and were popular worldwide.
Today, gnomes are thought of as garden ornaments. But who knows – these guardians of the Mineral Kingdom might hold the secret to the location of your next aggregate operation!
Bill Langer is a consultant geologist. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit researchgeologist.com