The real garden gnomes of the 1800s

Consider the humble garden gnome: a jolly little fellow in a red hat, smiling passively at passersby. Perfectly innocent, right? Well, what if I told you that the precursor to the garden gnome tradition used to involve real people paid to live in gardens? It sounds like something out of a dystopian novel, but no. It was a very real practice, and not even that long ago:

One such ad placed by Charles Hamilton outlined the expectations for a hermit-in-residence as follows:

…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.

The more eccentricities the hermit possessed, the better. While some consider modern-day hermits' preference for sequestration pathological, 18th century Europe lauded an individual's proclivity toward solitude, and paid a pretty penny to those willing to go nearly a decade without a bath or new clothing.

In essence, men were recruited to serve as living decorations on the properties of rich landowners. The hermit's presence would be an enduring symbol of quiet solitude, no matter how many tedious garden parties were held. Human ornaments. If it sounds horrific and dehumanizing, that's because it was. Personally, I prefer the lack of ethical concerns that come with a simple ceramic gnome.