Image above: French Victorian white-painted wrought iron terrarium, $27,5000 Today, Grace and I are heading to Terrain, one of our favorite stores — we’ve honestly made the trip from Brooklyn to Philadelphia just to eat in the greenhouse cafe. The store is filled with some of the best terrarium accessories ever. The terrarium craze is certainly not a new phenomenon. It was perfected by those masters of obsession, the Victorians.
Image above: From The Ferns of Great Britain and Ireland by Thomas Moore, 1857, from the New York Public Library
We can trace the history of the terrarium back to another Victorian obsession — ferns. The newfound prosperity in Victorian Britain resulted in a lot of women who didn’t work as a nod to status and had a lot of time on their hands. The Victorian era was also all about self-improvement, so these women made things. They cut out paper, made shell crafts, sewed and collected ferns. Collecting ferns was a relatively inexpensive hobby — you just had to go out and hunt. The fact that ferns lacked any flamboyantly colored flowers made them seem more serious. Fern collecting was one of the few egalitarian hobbies; it was appropriate for both men and women and for people from all social backgrounds. Ferns were the chosen motif for everything from coffeepots and fish knives to printed textiles and jet jewelry. — Amy A.
Images above from left: Common Fern-Shade with Ornamental Stand and Terrarium with Ferns and Ivy, 1870s, from the New York Public Library
Like many plant-obsessed Victorians, Nathaniel Ward was a London doctor by profession who had an intense enthusiasm for botany. But Dr. Ward’s plants, particularly his ferns, were having difficulty surviving the polluted air of 1820s London. It was intensely frustrating for a passionate plant collector to not be able to keep the plant of the moment alive. While puzzling over the problem with his ferns, Dr. Ward noticed that the plants placed in his covered insect jars (for studying moths and caterpillars) were actually taking root in the soil. It was a light-bulb moment — Dr. Ward realized that his miniature greenhouse could actually protect the plants enough so that they would thrive. He spread the word of his discovery and even published a book on the subject — On the Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases (full text from Google), and soon there was a Wardian Case (as the first terrariums were known) in every Victorian home. (Those Wardian Cases paved the way for the orchid obsession that was soon to follow.)
Images above from left: Fern vase and Wardian Cases, 1870s, from the New York Public Library
Not only was Dr. Ward’s discovery a boon for London plant lovers, but it also made the British tea obsession possible. Prior to the invention of the Wardian Case, it had been nearly impossible to grow Chinese tea plants outside China. Finally in the 1840s and ’50s, a botanist named Robert Fortune was able to use the Wardian Cases to successfully transport Chinese tea plants to India, and the Indian tea industry took off. By the mid-19th century, the price of tea had dropped so much that it became the most popular drink for all classes in Britain.