• A Summer Salute to Three Classic Garden Ornaments

June 06, 2019

Lawn and garden ornaments do more than add character to our landscaping. They say something to the world about us as individuals, and as part of our culture. And sometimes they say, "Screw you and your homeowner's association! We'll do as we damn well please!"

We were going to put together a fluffy post linking to all sorts of silly garden art, but you can hop on Pinterest anytime you want. In true Seed Needs fashion, we're going down the rabbit hole to learn more about the Triple Crown of classic garden ornaments. Choose your favorite; there's plenty of room for personalization and expression.

Garden Gnomes

As you'll read in Bathtub Mary's bio a bit later, Europeans have loved their ceramic garden sculptures for ages. The pointy-capped bearded characters we call garden gnomes are probably the most beloved and recognized of them all.

Have you seen the 2001 movie Amélie? There was a subplot in which someone swiped her father's garden gnome. Soon, he began receiving snapshots in the mail of the little guy "posing" at landmarks around the world. Kind of fitting, really. The garden gnome's origin story covers a lot of geographies.

No wonder they're grinning all the time

Nobody knows for sure, but gnomologists suggest the inspiration for these stumpy little dudes might have been the minor Greco-Roman fertility god Priapus. Regarded as the protector of merchant sailors, fruit trees, gardens, livestock, and—we're not joking—men's genitalia, he was often sculpted as a short, ugly thing about nine to 18 inches tall. He wore either a vertical, red domelike hat or a Phrygian cap similar to those worn by Smurfs.

Priapus bust, Museum of Vojvodina

Museum of Vojvodina [CC BY-SA 3.0 rs]

We'd be accused of being prudes if we didn't mention Priapus' most notable feature: His enormous giant schlong. Statues of Priapus in all his glory served as scarecrows and fertility charms. We'll avoid NSFW images for this terra-cotta Priapus bust found in Serbia.

Garden grotesques

During the Renaissance period, according to Antique Week, some garden and architectural ornaments served the same purpose. These ugly, squat, painted figures, found all over Europe, were called "grotesques." It's in this era that we first heard the term "dwarf" applied to these statues.

"Gobbi" was another, at least in Italy. Les Gobbi was also the name of a famous theatrical and comedy troupe of little people. This might hint at something: Little people (we don't call actual people of short stature the "D-word" anymore) and other humans who didn't fit the mold, so to speak, were called grotesques back then. Today, grotesque is defined as "comically or repulsively ugly or distorted."

House dwarves

In the 18th century, porcelain and hand-carved wood figurines crossed the threshold from the garden into German and Swiss homes. These "house dwarves" represented the mythical "little folk," thought to be protectors and helpers. The idea behind the figurines was to attract these beneficial beings much the same way you'd set out duck decoys. (Just don't shoot any house dwarves. Seriously bad luck. Elves, either.) These figurines looked very much like the familiar iconic garden ornament, though the hats still resembled the Smurfy Phrygian hat, at best, or a deflated sleeping cap, at worst.

The gnome rises

There's a lot of confusion about who created the first "modern" garden gnomes. First, let's clear something up. According to Antique Week, the word ''gnome'' only came into existence in early 18th century England, with Alexander Pope's "mock-epic" poem 'The Rape of the Lock.'"

Okay, so there's that. Here's something else:

Philipp Griebel founded his German porcelain manufacturing company in 1874 and began making garden gnomes (gartenzwerge) six years later. He's credited by Antique Week, Owlcation, and other reputable resources with selling 21 gnomes to one Sir Charles Isham, who imported them into England in 1847.

Clearly, there's a math issue here, and the last two digits weren't just mixed up; Isham got his figurines somewhere else. There were several "house" gnome manufacturers in Poland and Germany by the time Griebel set up shop, and the last remaining gnome from Isham's collection—currently insured for one million pounds—doesn't look anything like Griebel's designs.

And these are the gnomes that have reigned our yards and media for more than 139 years.

garden gnome classic garden ornaments

Reinhart Griebel, the fourth generation owner of the family business, recently announced he's looking for someone to buy the company. "Either I carry on until I am over 100 years old—that would certainly still be fun—or the garden gnomes reproduce," he told Reuters in March, citing alternatives to finding someone to take the baton.

Speaking of batons, reproducing, and such, Reinhart dabbled with (but discontinued) "naughty" gnome designs, including a pantsless "Fritz the Voyeur" gnome. Today, there are a ton of companies producing Griebel-inspired figurines of every imaginable theme, including those definitely Not Suitable for Front Yards (NSFY). Everything seems to come around in a circle, doesn't it?

Priapus would be proud.

Bathtub Mary

Molded concrete shrines featuring Catholic saints, Jesus Christ, and the Virgin Mary are pretty popular east of the Continental Divide, especially here in the upper Midwest. Sometimes the figures stand al fresco, but Mary is usually sheltered by arched cement grottoes. Or, in the case of some North American Catholic cultures, by cast-iron bathtubs.

No, the Blessed Mother isn't preparing to ride out a tornado. She's just reaping the benefits of mid-century industrial manufacturing practices.

Born of Clay

Affordable concrete and terracotta yard ornaments became popular here in the 1950s. Catholics from Western European heritage, particularly first- or second- generation immigrants embraced them as reflections of Old World shrines and traditions. "St. Mary's gardens" featuring statuary and her symbolic flowers have been around as far back as the seventh century.

How did Our Lady on the Half Shell—the nickname for statues perched inside scalloped, fluted concrete backgrounds—become Bathtub Mary? When homeowners upgraded from Victorian-era furnishings to molded porcelain, all those discarded claw-foot tubs became flower planters, livestock troughs, and divinely-inspired lawn art.

Given how many people like to turn old toilets into planters, somewhere there's a blasphemous gardener who's put together a diorama with Mary praying to the porcelain god.

Wikipedia credits a Massachusetts Azorean Portuguese community for inventing the first bona fide Bathtub Marys, but they didn't have a source for their claim. (We don't mess around on our gardening blog, and today is not the day we'll drop our standards!) We did find Bathtub Marys of Somerville (MA) a blog with the best collection of yard shrine snapshots outside of Pinterest.

Our Lady of Glue Guns and E6000

Mary's bathtub grottoes range from "we-just-remodeled-so-here-you-go" condition to spectacularly fantabulous kitsch. Devoted homeowners might decorate the tubs with tile, stone, brick, shells, or pieces of broken mirrors and glass, or plug-in fairy lights, electric candles, and disco balls. More restrained designs usually have, at the least, their interiors painted in Mary's signature powder-blue, and the strict traditionalists plant lady slipper, periwinkle, lilies, iris, or roses at her feet or nearby.

Our Lady of Descension

In 2006, humorist and Catholic convert Jeffrey Miller wrote a blog article about Bathtub Marys and interviewed Jeannie Thomas, Head of Utah State University's Department of English Folklore. She attributed the decline of Bathtub Marys to changes in "bathtub technology"—the scarcity of cast-iron tubs, and the "molded plastic things" that have replaced them.

If contemporary interior design prompted Our Lady of Scrubbing Bubbles' decline, it's worth noting that she's heading out the same way she came into the world. Search online long enough, and you'll find Mary tucked into a rectangular enamel built-in tub. And if you're super blessed, you'll spot her in a fiberglass tub insert. Maybe the next generation will stick flowers in the jets of upended, above-ground spas, and worship Jacuzzi Jesuses and Hot Tub Madonnas.

The Pink Flamingo

If "molded plastic things" kneecapped one yard ornament, it gave wings to another. What mass-produced mid-century American product squawks "kitsch" louder than a pair of bright pink lawn flamingos?

An icon is hatched

After World War II, the cheap cost the injection- and blow-molding processes created a "plastic boom," making novelty items both cheaper to ship and buy. Union Products in Leominster, Massachusetts (The Plastics Capital of the World!) hired a newly-fledged art student to design molds for plastic animal replicas. That man was Don Featherstone, who, for his second consignment, sculpted the molds for a pair of birds: One with its head upright, and the other down, as if looking for a contact lens. Within the same year, Sears began selling the matched pairs in its catalog for $2.76 a set, and Featherstone went on to create hundreds more sculptures for the company.

But...why flamingos? We don't know, either. And we looked. But we do know Featherstone used a National Geographic magazine photo for reference.

Cultural symbolism

When they first hit the market, house-proud blue-collar, working-class families in cookie-cutter housing tracts loved them for their flair. Lawn flamingos were pretty, affordable, and charming. According to some, anyway.

Do you associate lawn flamingos with Jon Waters? Abigail Tucker of Smithsonian magazine did. She interviewed the belovedly-subversive filmmaker for her 2012 article, "The Tacky History of the Pink Flamingo." Waters' 1972 film Pink Flamingos wasn't about lawn ornaments. They appeared as decor in front of a tacky trailer in which drag queen Divine lived, and that was pretty much it. But the association, as well as the anti-consumer counterculture blossoming in the late 60s and early 70s, clipped the wings of the flamingo's cachet.

As Waters told Tucker, the working class were "the only people who had them, had them for real, without irony," he said, adding "My movie wrecked that." Now, those who decorate their yards with lawn flamingos might be accused of appropriating the American trailer park "culture." That's one way to look at it, but most of us just think they're fun.

A few last flamingo facts

The pink plastic flamingo became Madison, Wisconsin's official bird in 2009. This wasn't out of the blue; thirty years earlier, University of Wisconsin students showed up for the first day of the fall semester to find 1008 flamingo ornaments hanging out on the campus' Bascom Hill. (One of the "guilty" prank coordinators, Jim Mallon, later co-created Mystery Science Theater 3000.)

Want to know more about vintage and special edition Featherstone flamingos? Check out the Save the Flamingos blog in which the author (we think she goes by Minnie) promotes conservation of both species: Phoenicopterus ruber and, as Featherstone classified his creation, Phoenicopterus ruber plasticus.

What Are Your Favorite Garden Icons?

We haven't even touched upon gazing balls, geese, and pinwheels, among other classic garden ornaments. Maybe someday. For now, we've got to get back to packaging up and sending out your orders of our fresh, high-quality seeds. Still, we could use a break here and there. So hit us up on social media, and show off your gardens...the kitschier, the better!


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