What is it about a lawn gnome that brings out the prankster in so many of us? Is it their magical nature? Is it their neutral position in the argument over lawn aesthetic or arbiter of bad taste? Could it be they're infused with the earth spirits they were named for, or is it because it's the only thing your neighbors own that isn't guarded by an alarm and a Doberman? I'm going with the less poetic, alarm and Doberman answer.
Gnome nabbing was once, nothing more than a destructive prank. A gnome was stolen, just to be abused, spray painted, batted, dragged, drilled and launched. When a battered gnome was returned, it was seldom in the same shape it was in before it disappeared. Early pranksters hadn't caught on to the notion that if both sides see the humor, it's that much funnier.
Fortunately for both gnomes and their owners, gnome nabbing took an incredibly inventive and artistic turn. What started as theft and destruction of personal property evolved into an elaborate gag that has turned into a cultural phenom and cottage industry.
Once upon a gnome
The earliest descriptions of gnomes were as spirits, formless energy that roamed beneath the surface of the Earth. These spirits had an aversion to the sun; a single ray would turn them to stone. Over time the stories of the spirits evolved into stories of a race of teeny tiny people who lived in burrows just below the surface of the Earth. Since the teeny people had a very lucky mojo, small, crude, clay effigies were put in fields and gardens as a blessing for the land. Some historians believe the early clay pieces were also considered fertility charms but that changes the symbolism of their red hats in ways I'd rather not think about.
The first manufactured clay garden gnome ("der Gartenzwerg") was made in Grafenroda, Thuringia, Germany in the early 1800's. Part decoration and part good luck charm, gnomes were a predominantly German tradition... Until Sir Charles.
The eccentrics' garden
On a March weekend in 1995 nearly 8,000 people passed through the doors of the Robert McDougal Art Gallery in Christchurch, England to see an exhibition of lawn gnomes. Yes, I said lawn gnomes. Close to 300 different gnomes were arranged in a "parade" down a center court of the gallery for viewing. The gnomes were the centerpiece of the first International Gnome Convention. The brainchild of the exhibition was Gnomologist Henry Sunderland.
For Sunderland, gnomes aren't just lawn decorations, they're environmental symbols; a funny and gentle reminder to be nicer to Mother Nature. Harry's first environmental gnome use was when he left "Charlie" at the South Pole in 1976. The South Pole gnomesicle now has 2 dozen friends, with each trip getting a few column inches. The Gnome Convention served the same purpose while also bringing many international gnome collectors together for the first time.
While the convention gnomes were from all over the world, a crowd favorite was a sort of, hometown boy. Though not directly from Christchurch, the gnome known as Lampy is from England. In an army of gnomes, Lampy stands out because of his pedigree and price tag.
In the middle of Northhamptonshire county in England sits Lamport Hall. Bought by John Ishman in 1560, it remained the Isman family home for over 400 years. The hall began as a Tudor manor but, in 1655 architect John Webb was hired to add a new 2 story wing. In the three hundred years that followed, Lamport Hall was redesigned and expanded a generation at a time to look like the classic English country estate it has become.
Inside, the Isham family has amassed quite a collection. John Isham and his son collected rare books and the fourth baronet of Lamport made a grand tour of Europe to furnish the home with paintings and rare antiques. Recognizing the halls', social and historical significance, Sir Gyles Isham, the twelfth and final Baronet of Lamport, bequeathed the hall and its contents to a charitable trust which now administers the estate. Its architectural design and decor make Lamport a national gem but by far the most unusual item in its vast collection and arguably, it's most famous, has to be Lampy, the first million dollar garden gnome.
To be more accurate, Lampy is insured for one million pounds. Using the current rate of exchange he would actually be worth about 1 million eight hundred thousand dollars. Why, in God's name would any garden gnome be worth almost two million smackers? Is he jewel encrusted? Was he part of an insidious plot to depose the queen? No, he was simply England's first.
Sir Charles Ishman was the 10th Baronet of Lamport Hall. As a vegetarian and a practicing spiritualist, he was considered something of an eccentric. He had inherited a love of gardening from his mother and sometime in the mid 1840's, Charles decided he wanted to design a garden on the grounds at Lamport. Being a bit offbeat, he chose an unusual theme. He chose an Alpine garden with a rockery. He imported over 20 lawn gnomes from Germany and gave them tools as if they were working the rock garden as a mine. The gnomes were the first known in England and many gardeners found them enchanting. Sir Charles had started a minor garden fad.
The gnomes were disliked by Charles daughters so, after his death, all the gnomes were removed...or so they thought. One gnome managed to survive in a nearly hidden niche in the rocks. By the time he was finally discovered, all the other gnomes had been tossed so Lampey was the last of his early kind and a rather significant garden artifact. Lampey now travels to the occasional gnome and garden show in his own special case. He also has a gnome handler that travels with him to each show. Considering the amount of gnome nabbings going on around the world, a handler isn't a bad idea for the ones in your own front yard.
A gnome's gotta roam
One August day in 2002 Barbara Austin came home from work and found one of her three gnomes missing from her North Carolina front yard. In his place was a plastic bag with a terse note inside that said:
"Gone travelin'. Back later."
Not long after that that, Barbara received her first photos of "Gnome" traveling across the United States.
On a late summer morning, less than two months after he had left, Gnome was back in the yard, decorated with balloons. He had with him an amazing photo album of his travels and a map to show where he had been. The album contained photos from 28 states, Mexico and Canada. He had posed at national monuments, been to ballgames and visited with pets and various yard ornaments along the way. Gnome had taken a trip of over 11,000 miles, yet the identities of his traveling companions were never revealed.
While no one is able to explain exactly when gnomes went from lawn art to travel companion, the first recorded road trip was in the mid 80's in Australia. A gnome disappeared from a neighbors lawn and soon after, he began to send notes and photos of his fun in the sun. When he returned, he had a brown shoe polish tan and the first age of travel mascots had begun.
The practice has become so well known that Travelocity launched an 80 million dollar advertising campaign based on the premise. The campaign began in New York with lost and found signs on telephone poles posted by "Bill" looking for his kidnapped gnome. Travelocitys "Roaming Gnome" TV ads now send witty images and travel updates to Bill from various locations across the globe.
There's gnome business ...
Not surprisingly, there are numerous traveling gnome websites. Lawrence the gnome is a world traveler, while Norm seems content to roam the United States. There's also Roaming Gnome a vacationing gnome community where anyone can upload their gnome travel pix.
Since photographing a small object against a large background is tricky, many of the photos are blurry and amateur, but some of the pictures are accidentally amazing. Mark my words, before the decade is through, some major art gallery or museum will have a show of traveling gnome photography.
While the traveling gnome has become more popular, lawn larceny has played itself out. It's become more fun to shop for a gnome than to steal one. People scour antique stores, garden centers, online nursery's and Ebay for the perfect gnome. If you prefer a tiny companion over a garden sized one, maybe Gnomads is what you're looking for.
Big Boing Toys has given the traveling gnome an internet twist. Called "the first web enabled action figures", Gnomads are a selection of pocket sized gnomes that not only love to travel, they have their own website where they can blog about it. The four inch tall Gnomads currently come in 4 flavors; A world traveler with suitcases in both hands, a t-shirt wearing tourist with a camera around his neck, a tropical gnome wearing a Hawaiian shirt and sportin' sunglasses and a Gnomette with a pink hat and a shopping bag. Each Gnomad has a "tracking number" on its foot. By entering the number on an exclusive Gnomads site, you can upload diary excerpts and photos as you travel. Does your Gnomad want to go somewhere you aren't going? Are you going on a trip and willing to take on travelers? The Gnomad discussion board has an area for Gnomad exchanges. You can send your tiny companion on an adventure without you or have a few friends mailed to you.
While garden gnomes are the poster child for travel mascots, they aren't the only silly objects to travel.
You want fries with that?
While many of his ilk are being eaten with a Big Mac or served mashed and Au Gratin, Spuds the Canadian tuber is traveling the world. Billed as the world's most traveled Mr. Potato head, Spuds has visited 28 states and 20 countries and has the photos to prove it. Spudstravels.com is filled with 16 years of photographs of a potato on vacation. The photographs are all authentic, not Photoshop fakes and spuds' personal photographer Timm Chapman goes to a lot of trouble on some of these photos. I expect he spends a lot of vacation time crawling around on his hands and knees to get the shots he does. What makes the site fun is fictional stories are told about Spuds adventures in each country.
Where have they bean?
Kevin and Gary were friends that worked for the same company but in offices 150 miles apart. One day after lunch at Chevy's, a local mexican restaurant, Gary left a doggie bag of beans in Kevin's car. The beans made the 150 mile drive back to Kevins house. Kevin sent the beans back to Gary who sent them back to Kevin, who sent them back to Gary all via workers who traveled between the offices.
While people appreciated the gag the stench began to cause a gag reflex so the beans were thrown away by a co-worker, and that was the end of it all...Until Kevin bought a can of S&W black beans at the supermarket and the game was afoot once again.
A VP at the company was making a trip to China and offered to take the can of beans with him. He brought back photos of the beans at the Great Wall of China. Now the beans no longer traveled back and forth between just Gary and Kevin, the beans began to travel worldwide. In 2002 Kevin started a website called Beans Around the World (beans-around-the-world.com) posting pictures of the can of beans on vacation. While the original can of beans is in semi-retirement, folks from all over, now take a can of
S&W black beans on vacation and send the photos to BATW to be posted on the site. If you can't find a can, a color label is available for download. Silly? Yes, and that's just the point. The beans are a photographic diversion meant simply to entertain. Doesn't it seem fitting that beans are used as internet filler?
When traveling leaves you flat
This year on the red carpet of the Oscars, Clint Eastwood was photographed with a chic and unusual accessory that caught everyone's attention. No, it wasn't a man bag, or studded cufflinks, Eastman was photographed with Flat Stanley.
One night in the Stone Age known as the 1960's, Jeff Brown was trying to get his two boys to sleep. The youngest, J.C. was stalling to keep his dad in the room. When he had run out of excuses, he ran one last desperate ploy. He told his dad he was afraid the bulletin board over his bed may fall on him. Brown assured his son the bulletin board wouldn't fall and even if it did it would take so long, he would wake up in the morning with the board on top of him, jokingly he added: "When you wake up in the morning, you'll probably be flat." The joke got a big laugh and for the next few nights, the three made up stories of what would happen if you were flat.
At the suggestion of a friend, Brown wrote Flat Stanley as a kids book. In the book, Stanley wakes up under a bulletin board to discover he's not quite an inch thick. Among his adventures, his brother flies him like a kite and his parents mail him to friends in California.
In 1995 Dale Hubert was a 6th grade teacher in Ontario Canada about to have his first 3rd grade class. In searching for a project that might encourage reluctant readers, Hubert read Flat Stanley. The story of being mailed to California caught his imagination and he began to form a plan. He had one of his old 6th grade students teach him some basic HTML and created a small website. He got the help of 6 schools in the United States and 7 in Canada and began a Flat Stanley exchange program.
Each student from a participating class would make a flat Stanley and send it along with a blank journal. When you received a Flat Stanley, the idea was to treat him like a guest, treating him to places you liked and adventures that were unique to your area. At the end of his trip, you filled in the journal with your shared adventures and , on occasion sent along photos.
The program now in its tenth year has over 6,000 participating classrooms in 34 countries. Flat Stanleys have orbited the Earth in Challenger and ridden a Yak in Tibet. Stanley has been photographed with two U.S. presidents and now, walked the red carpet at the Oscars.
While the Flat Stanley Project, is reserved for accredited schools during the school year, many personal Stanleys visit Disneyland every summer. Just because Stanley is educationally minded doesn't mean he quits writing in his journal or having fun in the summer.
By the way, if you're wondering why Flat Stanley was with Clint Eastwood ? Stanley had been drawn by one of Clint's daughters for her 3rd grade class.
In Part 2 of Travel Mascots, I'll give a few tips for choosing your own vacation companion.