Why do people put flamingos on their lawn? What compels us to stick popular lawn ornaments such as concrete geese or garden gnomes in our yards? In elite cultures throughout history—the courtyards of ancient Rome, 18th-century England, etc.—statues and shrines were placed in private areas, typically in walled gardens (or at the very least behind the home). Modern American yard ornaments are placed so everyone (especially the Joneses) can see them. What does this say about us?
The history of lawn ornaments in America is, in many ways, a history of taste in America. Every ornament on this list says something about its owner, from the whimsical whirligig to the despicable lawn jockey. Where did they come from? Why are they still around? Read on to discover the fascinating backstories of these icons of kitsch.
Ray Broadus Browne and Pat Browne’s 2001 social science tome The Guide to United States Popular Culture says, “plastics and fiberglass technologies immensely enlarged the lawn ornament industry” in the 1960s, paving the way for perhaps the most common piece of yard kitsch in America: the plastic flamingo.
The lanky tropical birds were popular as ornaments as early as the 1920s as “jigsawed figures with springsteel necks,” but they “flourished in three dimensions” from the early ‘60s until (roughly) the release of John Waters's kitschy 1972 masterpiece Pink Flamingos. The film helped to slowly cement the birds in popular imagination as kitsch items themselves, despite the film not really having anything at all to do with them. “The only people who had them [before the film] had them for real, without irony,” Waters told Smithsonian Magazine in 2012. “My movie wrecked that.”
The inventor of the plastic flamingo was a sculptor named Don Featherstone (seriously). Featherstone invented the now-ubiquitous bird in 1957 for a plastics company called Union Products in Leominster, MA—far from the real bird’s native tropics (Featherstone drew inspiration from National Geographic). America's late-'50s love affair with all things Caribbean (the flamingo's native home) surely helped initial sales, as Newsweek's Annie Dell'Aria observes. Americans were "flocking to Caribbean resorts in record numbers" and Caribbean-American pop star Harry Belafonte was topping the charts. The ‘60s were very kind to the plastic flamingo, aided in part—as the Smithsonian’s Abigail Tucker notes—by the pop art sensibilities hip at the time, as well as the sameness of post-World War II construction (Featherstone's wife Nancy says their "tropical elegance" could easily change a "humdrum house").
By the ‘80s, the poor birds became “an elaborate upper-class joke,” and sometimes part of “ethnic joke cycles,” as Brown & Browne observe, recalling the following Reagan-era howler: “What do flamingos have on their front lawns? Pink (ethnic minority of your choice).”
If you’ve ever lived or spent any significant amount of time in the American South or Midwest, you’ve probably seen at least a couple of these so-called “Jocko” lawn jockeys. Not all of them have their original, and obviously racist paint jobs, with the jet-black face and bright-red, exaggeratedly large lips; some have been painted over—literally whitewashed, in some cases—as if that helps at all (the lips are a still on the statue, guys). There’s another version, commonly known as the “Cavalier Spirit” model, which doesn’t have the exaggerated features, but still depicts an African American jockey. The “Cavalier Spirit” model is far easier to disguise as a white dude, so these are the jockeys you’re likely to see in the wild today. New ones, of course, are sold as white to begin with.
Where did these things come from? No one knows, exactly, but they’ve been around since at least the late 1700s, when they were dressed in slave clothing and called “groomsmen.” The switch to a jockey’s outfit may have had something to do with the fact that an overwhelming number of jockeys post-Emancipation were African American (13 out of 15 jockeys at the first Kentucky Derby in 1875, for example). They remained popular until the Civil Rights Movement (1954-68), with a peak in post-World War II subdivisions, according to historian Kenneth W. Goings in his book, Mammy and Uncle Mose: "Residents of new housing developments, perhaps to give themselves more of a sense of permanence, or perhaps to give themselves more of a sense of being a member of the privileged master class, began placing 'Jocko' on their lawns in great numbers."
David Pilgrim of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, MI, does a wonderful job on the museum’s site explaining why these obviously racist artifacts are still displayed and sold today. Sure, he concedes, there might be an historical, non-racist reason for private collectors to have them, but the reason so many people still shamelessly display them in public is complicated. Maybe you’ve seen some version of the supposedly “real” Jocko’s “backstory” somewhere online, even in seemingly reputable places, such as this account from the River Road African American Museum in Louisiana that Pilgrim found in 2008:
The story begins the icy night in December 1776 when General George Washington decided to cross the Delaware River to launch a surprise attack on the British forces at Trenton. Jocko Graves, a twelve-year-old African-American, sought to fight the Redcoats, but Washington deemed him too young and ordered him to look after the horses, asking Jocko to keep a lantern blazing along the Delaware so the company would know where to return after battle. Many hours later, Washington and his men returned to their horses that were tied up to Graves, who had frozen to death with the lantern still clenched in his fist. Washington was so moved by the young boy's devotion to the revolutionary cause he commissioned a statue of the 'Faithful Groomsman' to stand in Graves's honor at the general's estate in Mount Vernon.
Neat story, eh? Maybe a little too neat? (To quote psychologist Christopher Ryan, “As they say at the airport, beware of tidy packages you didn't pack yourself.”) The story is a total fabrication, according to record-keepers at Mount Vernon, who “put the story in the category with the cherry tree and silver dollar, fictional tales that were designed to illustrate a particular point." This particular point, unfortunately, has become “It’s okay to have Jocko in your yard and black people should be proud of him.” People who circulate this tale not only fail to check their facts, they also seem to ignore the statue’s obviously racist features.
Further complicating matters is historian Charles Blockson, who believes there’s evidence that Jocko and his ilk were used in the Underground Railroad as signals outside certain houses to warn escaped slaves of danger. This evidence has inspired Blockson and others to “reclaim” Jocko as a piece of African American history (the Chicago Tribune reported in 1998 that Blockson even displayed one in a lobby at Temple University… with an explanatory plaque). Pilgrim thinks there might be some truth to Blockson’s findings, but says the evidence ultimately isn’t that convincing. Regardless, he says “there is a consensus view in African American communities that black lawn jockeys are demeaning relics of a racist past.”
Amélie and Travelocity have helped make the yard kitsch classic somewhat hip of late, but garden gnomes as we know them today have been around since at least 1841, when the German company Baehr and Maresch may have produced the first ceramic ones (it’s a hotly contested topic, apparently). Sir Charles Edmund Isham—who reportedly had a “firm belief in gnomes as real beings”—famously brought them to England, displaying them in his “rockery” at Lamport Hall in 1847 (his daughters later removed all but one of them, a rogue named Lampy, who is still there to this day). Sir Frank Crisp kept the trend going at his grand gardens at Friar Park in the 1890s—his gnomes, in fact, are the ones on the cover on George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass.
World War I and II hurt their popularity a bit—they were primarily a German product, after all—but the long-lasting popularity of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs of 1937 helped to undo some of that damage. By the mid-20th century, “Disneyfication resulted in cross bred dwarf/gnomes and an outbreak of rabbit sidekicks,” according to garden historian Twigs Way (no joke), author of Garden Gnomes: A History. That wave of popularity has ebbed and flowed, with a “naughty gnome” and Smurfs-assisted boost in the 1980s, to the 2010s, where “combined cool and kitsch appears to be leading a gnome revival.”
The origin of the so-called “Fat Fanny” and “Fat Freddy” garden cut-outs are murky, to say the least. If you haven’t seen them, they’re wooden cut-outs of obese gardeners bending over. You’re supposed to put them in your garden, you see, so it looks like obese gardeners are bending over in your yard. Got it?
The New York Times references “wooden Fat Fannies, and the latest, Fat Fred” as some of the "year's hot items" in a June 18, 1989, article about a Long Island lawn ornament business, but the Toledo Blade beat the Times to the punch in September 1988, dedicating an entire trend piece to the topic. Reporter/"Roving Editor" Janet Romaker says, “Fat Fanny and Fat Freddy [have been] bending over in the garden since early spring [of 1988],” but also quotes one yard ornament manufacturer who claims to have already been making them for a “couple years,” so it looks they became a thing in the US between 1986 and 1988? Here’s Romaker’s hot take on why they were popular:
What is behind this interest in behinds? No one is quite sure, but some people guess that the wooden fannies are simply attention-getting devices. Or, part of a hip new hindsight in American popular culture.
Romaker also quotes Jeff Gordon, an associate professor of geography from Bowling Green State University "who studies landscape as part of his continuing research on geography" but has "not studied the yard ornaments" and is frankly no help at all. Gordon explains that Fat Fanny/Freddy is "meant to be fanciful, a little nostalgic, a little romantic" and "they are supposed to be pleasant." Gordon's final word on the fannies? "They are not supposed to be real. They are meant to be funny."