Gnomes have grown. They began as tiny creatures in legends that go back a thousand years in Europe. Supposedly they lived a subterranean lifestyle and were so tiny they could hide behind a toadstool.
Unlike some mythical beings who are dangerous and evil, gnomes are good-hearted and helpful. They reputedly help farmers and tend gardens by night, acts of kindness that led to the first garden gnomes, terracotta figures produced in Germany in the mid-1800s. Only one survived from the original lot brought to Great Britain in 1847. Supposedly it’s insured for a million pounds now. In their modern incarnation, they’re sturdy little dwarves who promote a travel service on TV.
Unlike the elves who help Santa, gnomes came onto the Christmas scene by helping the goats that delivered sleighs full of gifts in 16th-century Sweden. Belief in them faded until the 19th century when their legends resurfaced, promoted in stories like those collected by the Brothers Grimm.
A miniature postcard (approximately 2.5 by 4 inches) signed Margit Broberg is a 1930s Art Deco version of a girl gnome wearing a tall red hat.
Gnomes never came to mind when I bid on and won an auction lot of miniature Swedish postcards. I’ve always been fascinated by tiny cards that have passed through the mail, and the estimate of $12 for 32 Christmas cards was too good to pass up. As hoped, some had gone through the mail with stamps in tact between the 1930s and 1970s, and one even had a delightful Swedish Christmas seal. The real bonus was in the gnomes, 10 different, all with the distinctive red-peaked hat. One was a very Art Deco girl gnome, and one was a child gnome. The rest were white-bearded men with wooden shoes doing things to help people, including tending a horse.
Best of all, three were signed by Erik Forsman (1916-1976), the Swedish book illustrator who did much to revive the lore of gnomes. His postcards were among the newer ones in the auction lot, used in the ‘70s. A skilled artist, he gave gnomes distinct personalities and charming expressions, making his work well worth collecting. Checking on eBay, I also found his art on a full-size postcard with a rooster making a speech to hens and chicks, showing that his range went beyond mythical gnomes.
Tiny birds show how much the legendary gnomes have grown on this postcard signed Erik Forsman. Beards and wooden shoes are traditional, but red hats and helpfulness are the hallmarks of gnomes.
Without artists to make gnomes come alive, it seems unlikely that any would have reached the big-time, namely the TV gig and popularity as garden statues. Forsman was one of the best, but not the first.
Postcard collectors are more familiar with Jenny Nystrom, an earlier Swedish artist who popularized the mythical creatures. A collection of postcard gnomes is well within the reach of most collectors. Their red hats, probably adapted from those worn by Mediterranean fisherman because they couldn’t be seen in the dark, are the one sure way to identify them.
Although gnomes seem devoted to good works now, older versions had a gnarled old man living underground and guarding buried treasure. At one time this image was so familiar that Swiss bankers were called the Gnomes of Zurich. Since many appear on foreign-made postcards, it’s helpful to know that they’re called Tomten in Sweden, Kaukis in Germany, and Barbegazi in France and Switzerland where they are pictured with big feet.
Two of Erik Forsman’s gnomes are making a straw goat, a reminder that their kind once helped the animal deliver Christmas gifts in Sweden. This is a 1970s postcard by the famous book illustrator.
As much as collectors love the old-time Christmas postcards of the early 1900s, there’s a great deal of pleasure to be had from later ones. European greetings from the 1930s on are still plentiful at give-away prices and may well become highly sought-after collectibles in the future.