The history of garden gnomes, plastic flamingos and more.
Loved and reviled by many, lawn ornaments remain popular all over the world, but few us know how or why. You may be surprised to learn that a few of these garden decorations go back hundreds of years. If you’ve ever been curious of why pink flamingos have become ubiquitous in suburbia or how the gazing ball made its way across Europe (and while we’re at it, what the heck does that pineapple flag hanging next door mean?), check out their origin stories below:
Before we had lawn gnomes, there were house dwarves. These statues lived in Italian gardens since the Renaissance days! The descendants of these dwarves would become lawn gnomes that can be seen all across the western world. Over the course of the 1700’s, they began invading Switzerland, Germany, France and England. But things weren’t all rosy: during World War II, Germany’s gnome industry took quite a hit.
Gnomes are said to bring good luck, but today a gnome on your lawn invites a prank: often, one may be kidnapped and sent on trips around the world, as parodied in Travelocity’s “Roaming Gnome” character.
The Plastic Flamingo
The flamingo is the epitome of kitsch and one of the most well-known of lawn ornaments. But how did it catch on? The iconic bird was designed by Donald Featherstone in 1957 for the now-defunct Union Products. Its popularity catapulted with John Waters’ 1972 cult classic Pink Flamingos, named after a pair of plastic flamingos standing on the protagonists’ lawn. The film helped the lowly ornament gain a reputation as kitsch art, and Featherstone eventually won the 1996 Ig Nobel prize for the bird.
Just like garden gnomes, the flamingos attract mischief: some families moving into a new neighborhood have woken up to whole flocks of flamingos that appeared over night. Meanwhile, some housing associations have banned them to keep property values high.
The Lawn Jockey
This American lawn ornament has a couple origin stories. Some believe the lawn jockey commemorates an individual named Jocko Graves, who held post on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River while Washington and his troops made their historic crossing to Trenton, New Jersey. Poor Graves is said to have frozen to death holding his lantern there in the cold, and it’s said that the lawn jockey is shaped in his image.
Others say the lawn jockey originated in the Underground Railroad, with ribbons tied to the jockey sculptures to indicate places of safety. Neither of these stories have sufficient evidence to support them, and the lawn jockey’s rise to garden fame remains a mystery. But one unfortunate truth is that many older lawn jockeys–depicting Black men–feature racially insensitive exaggerations, which have made some of these ornaments controversial.
The Gazing Ball
Call it what you want: gazing ball, mirror ball yard globe–these spherical, mysterious and shiny orbs sit and stand on many lawns and gardens. Made of blown glass, they often rest on a stand.
It’s no wonder these became popular: they reflect such great images in bold colors. But where did they come from? Like the house dwarves, gazing balls were blown in 13th century Italy. After Bavarian King Ludwig II placed gazing balls all over his palace in Herrenchiemsee, they become popular among gardens all over Europe–talk about keeping up with the Joneses.
Stone pagoda structures refer to the tiered towers of Asia. Originally, these structures contained sacred Buddhist relics and writings, but today they are typically used for places of worship.
Stone pagodas are a fixture of traditional Chinese and Japanese gardens, and you’ll find some in other places as well, including American lawns. While these are more sculptural than serving as places to enter and pray, they still serve as monuments for worship and are a treat to the eyes.
While you may not see an actual pineapple sitting on someone’s lawn, chances are you might have seen a pineapple sculpture or pineapple-adorned flag hanging in more than a few yards. The pineapple has a long history of being a symbol of welcome, dating back to before Christopher Columbus set foot on the island of Guadeloupe.
Upon docking on the isle, Columbus and his men learned that the Carib–the island’s indigenous habitats–placed pineapples by village entrances as a sign of hospitality to visitors. This symbolism was taken back to Europe, and back overseas again to the colonies of North America. Eventually, pineapples would be carved into the gates of plantations and used as centerpieces when visitors entered the home.