Chances are when you look at a garden gnome, you don’t see anything other than a very dated lawn ornament. However, that’s only part of the story.
While garden gnomes might only be considered as backyard tchotchkes today, they actually have a very unusual history. In fact, their roots trace back all the way to the 18th century.
Back in the day, the wealthy English elite took a lot of pride in displaying their fortunes. One of the most popular ways of doing that seems pretty outlandish by today’s standards…
You know those garden gnomes you often see sitting in people’s yards? Well, they’re more than just cute figurines. They actually have a long-standing history that goes back to the 18th century, with one major difference: they weren’t statues, but real-live people.
When the tradition of displaying gnomes on lawns began, the role of the “gnome” was actually played by a real, living, breathing man! Yes, you read that correctly. These people were called “ornamental hermits,” and if you were wealthy landowner and member of the nobility, chances are you had one living on your property.
In order to understand this bizarre tradition, you must first realize that there were two huge trends that exploded during the 18th century: a passion for solitude and a garish display of wealth. Building a small hut for a sad-looking hermit who you let live free of charge gave you, as a wealthy landowner, a chance to showcase both of these passions…
Landowners looking for a hermit might post an ad just like this: “He shall be provided with a Bible, optical glasses, a mat for his feet, a hassock for his pillow, an hourglass for timepiece, water for his beverage, and food from the house. He must wear a camlet robe, and never, under any circumstances, must he cut his hair, beard, or nails, stray beyond the limits of Mr. Hamilton’s grounds, or exchange one word with the servant.”
While a person eccentric enough to desire a life of total solitude might be considered ill today, these were traits that were lauded in the 18th century. But it wasn’t always an easy gig. Many hermits left before their contract was up, which meant that they forfeited their pay.
The hermit’s main job was to make sure that they did not, under any circumstances, interact with guests. Visitors would often stop by the hermitage to view it and its occupant, but never for chit-chat. That was forbidden.
People who could not afford to provide and pay for a permanent ornamental hermit very often built a hermitage all the same. This gave visitors the impression that the hermit had perhaps just stepped out, presumably to go be very quiet some place else.
Eventually, thanks to technology—and the realization that keeping people hostage on your front lawn as a reminder of your mortality was a rather grim thing to do—the trend died out. Still, there are those who pine for the custom’s return…
While the practice of keeping an ornamental hermit isn’t likely to come back into vogue any time soon, garden gnomes (yes, like the one your grandmother has) are directly inspired by this 18th-century practice. Crazy, right?
If you travel the English countryside, chances are you won’t run into any hermits, but you will be able to find plenty of former hermitages built on some of the larger estates that make the country so famous!
What a crazy tradition! Can you believe that something like this was ever considered remotely normal? You’ll never look at garden gnomes the same way again.
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