2004 will mark 'The Year of the Gnome' in the city of Usti nad Labem

Usti Gnome on commercial poster from 1910

The North Bohemian city of Usti nad Labem has always been known for its chemical industry. But historians from the local museum seem to have turned their back on chemistry - they have decided to celebrate the year 2004 as 'The Year of the Gnome". And they have a good reason for it. Alena Skodova reports:

Usti Gnome on commercial poster from 1910
More than a hundred years ago, Usti nad Labem was known for the production of decorative objects 'for house and garden', and at the end of the 19th century, decorative garden gnomes made in the town were said to have had a reputation equal to that of Rolls Royce in the world of cars. I spoke with Vaclav Houfek from the Municipal museum in Usti nad Labem, who told me more about this forgotten episode of the town's past:

"From 1841, a factory producing ceramic goods existed in Usti nad Labem, owned by a German, Mr. Johann Maresch. At the end of the 19th century, Mr. Maresch produced top quality objects, gnomes and other kinds of fairy-tale figures and animals, which sold immensely well. His great speciality were gnomes, highly popular with people in the city itself and in places further afield."

The prosperous factory had a bitter end, though: it finished its production after the end of WWII, when the German population was expelled from the border regions of Czechoslovakia, known as Sudetenland. A national administrator was appointed to run the factory in post-war Czechoslovakia, but there were not enough qualified workers, and demand dropped substantially, because after the war people had more serious problems to tackle, than how to adorn their gardens.

But the administrator, a Mr. Doubravsky, was a good entrepreneur, and in 1948, when the Communists took over, he suggested that the factory produce busts of the first Communist president Klement Gottwald. The problem was, that he had no model to follow, so he started to go to the cinema and watch all the film-journals preceding the main film, all of which featured the new president. After seeing him so many times, he felt confident to start production of his busts.

But soon afterwards, an ardent local Communist official reminded Mr. Doubravsky, that Comrade Gottwald's busts had ears that were too big, and the administrator was accused of ridiculing the head of state. What followed inevitably was the closure of the factory altogether.

Mr. Houfek told me that in his museum, they still have objects produced in the Maresch factory, most of which are of top-quality design. But unfortunately, they do not own a single example of a typical gnome of the time - these can only be seen in old catalogues.

Historians in Usti nad Labem plan to declare the year 2004 'The Year of the Gnome':

"To mark the occasion, we would like to have an exhibition on Mr. Maresch and his factory, but we would like to organize some other ventures, too. My idea is to hold a professional colloquium , and we will also seek funds that could support an artistic workshop where gnomes would be produced. I also think that the place where Maresch's factory stood should be marked properly, a monument depicting the Usti Gnome would be ideal, but I don't know if we'll find enough money for that."

The chances of restarting gnome production in Usti nad Labem are slim. The factory was demolished in the 1970s, and if anybody would like to start making gnomes again, he would have to build a new one.