Posts filed under ‘Artifacts’

Auto Vases: an Accessory Born from Necessity

Tiffin glass auto vase

Auto vase, probably manufactured by the Tiffin Glass Company, Tiffin, Ohio. Collection of Smithsonian Gardens.

Imagine yourself after a long day outside; you are driving down the road on a hot summer day with temperatures in the upper 90s. Now imagine there is no air-conditioning in the car; immediately a pungent odor of battery acid hits you and mingles with the stench of the other passengers’ sweat. This experience is not common today thanks to temperature controls that are standard in most cars, but it would have been the case whenever you rode in a car until air conditioners were installed in automobiles in 1939.

There were no pine-scented cardboard trees to dangle from the mirror during this time, and many car owners desperately wanted a reprieve from the foul smell. The auto vase, a term coined by auto magnate Henry Ford, was the solution to the problem. As early as 1895, small vases, which held one or two flowers that emitted a sweet fragrance, became the first automobile air-fresheners.

The auto vase is comprised of a small bud vase with a bracket that allowed it to be mounted inside the car either on the dashboard or by a passenger side window. Vases came in many designs and colors, in a variety of price ranges. They not only improved the smell but also added a touch of elegance to the car interior.  Pressed glass, cut crystal, metal, porcelain, ceramic, and even wood were used for the vases, which were often paired with brackets that were fancier than the vases themselves. The fixtures could be made of silver and some were even gold plated. Smithsonian Gardens preserves three examples of these auto vases in its Garden Furnishings and Horticultural Artifacts Collection. One of the three is made from Depression glass with a sky blue satin finish, and is encircled by a nickel-plated bracket.

Auto vases were sold in jewelry stores, auto parts stores, and catalogs from companies such as Sears. Henry Ford was so pleased with these simple solutions that he offered them in his parts department and added them to his system of mass production. The service these vases provided made them a desirable feature to add to any car. With improvements in car batteries and air-conditioning becoming standard in vehicles, the auto vase was no longer necessary. In recent years, however, there has been resurgence in these novelties. Cars such as the Volkswagen Beetle revived these little vases for a fresh twist on their interiors, and drivers of other cars have caught on to the trend.

 

For more information about auto vases:

Steele, Evie. “For your Limousine.” Classic Car, vols. 23-25. Michigan: Classic Car Club of America, 1975. p. 22-23.
Stout, Sandra. Depression Glass Price Guide. Wayne, PA: Wallace-Homestead Book Company, 1980.
____. “Origin of automobile bouquet holders.” Popular Mechanics, May 1913. Hearst Magazines, 1913. p. 678-679.
Lounsbery, Elizabeth. “Some Automobile Accessories.” American Homes and Gardens, Vol. 10.  Munn and Company, 1913.
____. “Flower-Decorated Motor Cars the Vogue.” Automobile Topics, Vol. 18. E.E. Schwarzkopf, 1909. p. 386.

-Janie R. Askew
Research Assistant, Smithsonian Gardens
MA Candidate, History of Decorative Arts
The Smithsonian Associates – George Mason University

June 24, 2014 at 7:00 am Leave a comment

Ever Thine: A Sailor’s Valentine

Sailor's Valentine

“Sailor’s Valentine” octagonal shadow box with shells, Smithsonian Gardens’ Garden Furnishings and Horticultural Artifacts Collection.

Despite the name “sailors’ valentines,” these sentimental treasures have nothing to do with February 14th or Valentine’s Day.  Instead, these tokens of love and friendship were given to wives, mothers, sisters, and friends upon a seafarer’s return from a long voyage at sea.

Sailors’ valentines are octagonal wooden boxes often made from Cerdrella (Spanish Cedar) that range in size (when closed) from about 8 to15 inches across. They were made between 1830 and 1880, and are now extremely rare. The box, which opens like a book, reveals an intricate mosaic created mostly from shells. The shells used were in a variety of shapes and colors to create intricate motifs such as hearts, anchors, and flowers, or they could be arranged in complex geometric patterns. The mosaics are protected by a glass pane; when closed these boxes could be easily stored, making them ideal for the voyage home by sailors in the navy or aboard whaling ships.

In addition to being a colorful and decorative souvenir from their travels, these boxes had sentimental motives. Messages were often incorporated into the shell design such as: “To a Friend,” “Think of Me When Far Away,” “Remember Me,” “With Love,” “Forget Me Not,” and “Home Again.” These love tokens could be personalized by including a photograph or even initials or names worked into the shell design. The sailor’s valentine in the Smithsonian Gardens’ Garden Furnishings and Horticultural Artifacts Collection is a fine example of these sentimental objects. With the message “Ever Thine” accompanied by a heart and rose, this valentine was surely sent to someone who was dearly loved.

Further Reading:

  • Fondas, John. Sailors’ Valentines. New York: Rizzoli International Publications Inc., 2002. pp. 7-12.
  • O’Brien, Tim. “Collectibles, The Sailors Valentine: Sea Shells for Sweethearts…” Victorian Homes, Winter 1984.  pp. 18-19, 91.

 -Janie R. Askew
Research Assistant, Smithsonian Gardens
MA Candidate, History of Decorative Arts
The Smithsonian Associates – George Mason University

February 10, 2014 at 7:30 am Leave a comment

Botanical Scrapbooks

Collecting and preserving plants has always been a popular pastime, especially in the 19th century. Both men and women pressed flowers and foliates (leaves) to keep in botanical scrapbooks. This activity served a variety of interests, both scientific and sentimental.

Whatever their purpose, plants that were collected were prepared and added to scrapbooks in a similar fashion. Flowers typically were pressed in between the pages of a book by the amateur hobbyist while the more serious collector often used a field press. The field press was superior because of its ability to preserve a plant’s color and create a more precise specimen.  Field presses were composed of two boards of wood, leather straps and sheets of blotting paper. The process was simple: a plant or flower would be placed between two pieces of paper, then placed between boards. Leather straps would be tightly wrapped around the packet and firmly secured. When sufficiently dry, the specimen would be removed from the field press and glued, sewn, or attached with thin gummed strips to a scrapbook page.

The way in which these items were displayed depended on the type of book the collector wanted to create.  Scrapbooks for botanical study usually included a taxonomic description (family, genus and species), a physical description of the plant as well as the date and location of when and where it was collected.  Scrapbooks created for sentimental reasons might have been created as a craft project or to serve as a memento in remembrance of a person, event or place.

The Smithsonian Gardens’ Garden Furnishings and Horticultural Artifact Collection includes three examples of 19th and early 20th century botanical scrapbooks.

Scrapbook as Herbarium for Botanical Study

A botanical scrapbook (FJP.1987.364) dated 1905 was created by Margaret May Hill and is an example of an herbarium or collection of dried flowers that are labeled and described for botanical study.

Pressed pinks

Pressed pinks of the Caryophyllaceae (pink family or carnation family)

Taxonomic description of pressed pinks

Handwritten taxonomic and physical description of pressed pinks on opposite page.

Botanical Scrapbook as Memento

The botanical scrapbook titled “Flowers of Remembrance”  is a sentimental travel log of visits to sites all over Italy during the 1850s.  Instead of a travel journal with written entries, the pages are filled with flowers and plants collected from various sites as mementos. One page shows pressed flowers collected at the Roman Coliseum in 1853, 1854 and 1856 all on the same page.

DSC_0118

Botanical Scrapbook for Study and as Memento

A book of dried water ferns (Salviniales) is both scientific and sentimental as it illustrates both the incredible variety and beauty of water ferns. The front of the book reveals that it was a gift from a grandmother to her grandson (Hester Schell to Howard Schell) on November 11, 1900.

DSC_0110 DSC_0111

For further Reading:

Puckett, Sandy. Fragile Beauty: The Victorian Art of Pressed Flowers. New York: Warner Books, Inc., 1992

Whittingham, Sarah. The Victorian Fern Craze. Oxford: Shire Publications Ltd., 2009.

-Janie R. Askew
Research Assistant, Smithsonian Gardens
MA Candidate, History of Decorative Arts
The Smithsonian Associates – George Mason University

June 26, 2013 at 8:00 am Leave a comment

What’s in a name?

Flower Frog
A recent donation of a flower frog to the Horticultural Artifacts Collection.

The flower frog is a handy tool used in flower arrangements made by professionals and amateurs. The metal cage flower frog–such as this recent acquisition by Smithsonian Gardens–is the most functional type of frog. Glass and ceramic versions were generally purposed for decoration rather than utility. You may wonder how a little cage came to be called a frog—so do we. The etymology of the name ‘frog’ for these flower-holding devices does not appear in dictionaries. Just as a rose by any other name will, in fact, smell as sweet, the importance of metal caged floral arrangers does not diminish with its ‘froggy’ anonymity.

In 1916, William R. Struck of Dazey Manufacturing patented the first metal cage flower frog. It was designed to be camouflaged by the stems and leaves of a floral arrangement, letting the bouquet speak for itself. Frogs were produced in a wide variety of sizes; some included multiple tiers of cages that allowed for more complex displays. Stems were inserted into the different holes, which anchored them to the device and held them at the same level, giving them equal access to water. The metal cage flower frog could achieve these feats, all while remaining virtually unseen.

Frog Cage, Beagle Mfg. Co

Frog Cage, Beagle Mfg. Co., Pasadena, CA. Height 3 1/6 in. x Diameter 7 5/8 in. Horticultural ArtifactsCollection. FJP.1987.323

 Garden clubs quickly embraced the metal cages because they permitted more artfully arranged flowers than had been previously possible. Many had complained that vases and decorative frogs made the flowers stick up straight; the metal cage addressed this limitation by allowing flower stems to be inserted at various angles. Publications also promoted these devices over their decorative predecessors because the design of the cage enabled even the amateur floral artist to create dynamic arrangements quickly and easily.These little cages were the dominant type of flower frogs used by both professional and amateur floral artists until 1954 when Oasis was invented. This water absorbent foam developed by Vernon Smithers nearly drove the metal cage flower frogs to extinction. Smithsonian Gardens is fortunate to have a number of them in its Horticultural Artifacts Collection.  Though meant to be hidden, they remain an example of one of the greatest innovations in flower arranging of their time.

See more flower frogs in the Smithsonian Gardens’ Horticultural Artifacts Collection.

For further reading: Bull, Bonnie. Flower Frogs for Collectors. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd, 2001.

Janie R Askew
Research Assistant, Smithsonian Gardens
MA Candidate, History of Decorative Arts
The Smithsonian Associates – George Mason University

June 3, 2013 at 9:00 am Leave a comment

Rustic Ornament in the Victorian Garden

This Stump Pedestal is an example of a popular Rustic Style of garden ornament that developed in the late nineteenth century. This style was adapted to the garden from the Romantic Movement, which was characterized by its nostalgic look at nature. Its love of picturesque landscapes was recreated in the garden. The “English Landscape Garden” or “Jardin Anglaise” relied on objects in the rustic style to create an informal setting that put an emphasis on the true nature of the land.

Rustic pedestal

1979.26, Pedestal, Rustic Stump, late 19th C, Cast-iron, paint, 22 x 18 x 13.

These gardens were more sparsely ornamented than other garden styles. Objects were often created using materials found in nature such as tree branches, twigs, roots, bark, pinecones, animal horns, antlers and seashells and were often handmade. Cast-iron, already a popular material used in the garden used molds that would mimic these natural assemblages. As we see in the rustic stump pedestal, it is cast in a high relief and mimics the look of a tree trunk with thick bark that is entangled roots and oak leaves. It would have been used as a base for a plant stand or bird bath and occasionally could have been used a planter itself. These objects were usually painted in white, black, or natural colors that would blend in with the landscape.

Horticulture magazines and other serials provided layout, planting, ornament and structure designs that would have incorporated objects such as the stump pedestal. This was a popular item that can be seen in the 1858, Janes, Beebe, & Co. New York trade catalogue, the 1875, Coalbrookdale Company of England trade catalogue, and the 1893, J.W. Fiske Iron Works trade catalogue.

Many of these rustic style cast-iron ornaments have been broken or damaged. However, gardeners still feature them in their landscapes today.  Using the broken pieces and fragments of these antique garden furnishings, they create interesting displays that incorporate the past and create a nostalgic and picturesque setting for the present.

Further Reading:
Israel, Barbara. Antique Garden Ornament: Two Centuries of American Taste. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1999.
Himmelheber, Georg. Cast-iron Furniture, and all other forms of iron furniture. London: Philip Wilson Publishers Ltd, 1996
Hill, May Brawley. Furnishing the Old-Fashioned Garden: Three Centuries of American Summerhouses, Dovecots, Pergolas, Privies, Fences & Birdhouses. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1998.

 -Janie R. Askew
Research Assistant, Smithsonian Gardens
MA Candidate, History of Decorative Arts
The Smithsonian Associates/George Mason University

April 17, 2013 at 8:00 am 1 comment

Victorian Love of Nature, Ornament and Decoration on Display

Plant stand

OH.1985.32, Plant Stand, c. 1850-1900, Cast-iron, 44” x 25.5”

Plant stands such as this, from the Smithsonian Gardens’ Garden Furnishings and Horticultural Artifacts Collection, were the perfect tool to combine a love of nature with a taste for ornament and decoration in the Victorian Era. Named for Queen Victoria of Great Britain, the Victorian Era classifies the period of society and the fine and applied arts during her reign from 1837 to 1901.The cultivation of plants was a widely popular pastime for the Victorians in all levels of society, and their toils were proudly displayed in homes and gardens. Plant stands became an essential item for the exhibit and storage of flowers and foliage. Their practical and decorative benefits were amplified by the link they provided between the domestic interior and the natural world that had gone missing due to the Industrial Revolution.

Plant stands were manufactured in England, America, and France, and came in a variety of forms and materials. Cast- and wrought-iron were the most common materials for garden ornaments such as this; however, they also came in wood, wicker, glass, and ceramic versions and were usually painted white, black, brown, or green.  Circular, semi-circular, or squared structures could be positioned against a wall or in the center of a space. Single level and tiered versions were popular, in addition to the plant stand we see here that has multiple appendages.

This type of plant stand was made using separately cast arms attached to a central axis rod. The arms could be rotated and moved vertically along the pole to display plant specimens of various sizes. The cup at the end of each arm would hold a small flower or foliate, which were often in their own removable liner so they could be changed out seasonally.

 Plant stands are still a popular indoor and outdoor garden accessory for displaying plants. Just as they did during the Victorian Era, they showcase a selection of seasonal varieties to beautify the home and bring nature within reach.

 Further Reading:
Israel, Barbara. Antique Garden Ornament: Two Centuries of American Taste. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1999.

 -Janie R Askew
Research Assistant, Smithsonian Gardens
MA Candidate, History of Decorative Arts
The Smithsonian Associates/George Mason University

March 25, 2013 at 9:00 am 1 comment

It’s Not Just About Plants

Gothic Settee, Kramer Brothers Foundry Company, circa 1880-1900. Garden Furnishings Collection, Smithsonian Gardens.

Gothic Settee, Kramer Brothers Foundry Company, circa 1880-1900. Garden Furnishings Collection, Smithsonian Gardens.

In 1973, just a year after it was established, Smithsonian Gardens acquired its first antique garden furnishing for display on the Smithsonian campus in Washington, D.C. Since then, over 2,000 garden furnishings and horticultural artifacts have been collected by Smithsonian Gardens ranging from delicate bouquet holders to towering fountains. While most of the pieces date from the late nineteenth to early twentieth century, all help to document important facets of our garden heritage.

The Garden Furnishings Collection includes hundreds of cast iron pieces such as settees, chairs, urns and wickets. Dozens of these furnishings are currently on display throughout a number of the Smithsonian gardens. They are a particularly appropriate complement to the ornate architecture of the Smithsonian Castle and the Arts and Industries Building.

While not much is known about the origins of many specific pieces in the collection, Smithsonian Gardens staff and interns have gleaned general information about some cast iron furnishings from historic trade catalogs that document the wares of numerous foundries operating in the United States during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Fortunately, one settee on display in the Ripley Garden features a maker’s mark that indicates where it was manufactured and by whom.

With the rise of the middle class in the mid-nineteenth century, many objects made for utilitarian use, such as garden furnishings, saw a dramatic change in the way they were designed and manufactured. Victorian furniture is characterized by a jumbling of styles, often incorporating design elements from previous eras, from High Renaissance to Gothic to Rococo. Makers and buyers would simply pick elements they found pleasing and incorporate them into a piece with no regard to purity of the original designs.

For example, this Smithsonian Gardens’ settee incorporates both Gothic and Rococo design elements at the same time, something that would hardly have ever been done prior to the Victorian era (1837-1901). Overall, the settee is extremely Rococo in its form and design. Characteristics of the Rococo period can be seen in the fluid curl of the cabriole legs and in the “c” scrolls that make up the arms. These two elements are characteristic of the asymmetry and playfulness of the Rococo period of the late 18th century, and would not have been combined with the structure and orderliness favored during the Gothic period (12th-16th centuries).

Interestingly, this settee features more Rococo elements in its design than it does Gothic, which was the name given to the pattern by the manufacturer, the Kramer Brothers Foundry Company of Dayton, Ohio. The only distinctly Gothic element is the back of the settee, which is comprised of four rows of repeating arches. It is this combination of characteristics from different styles that makes this piece unique and interesting, much like countless other objects from the late Victorian period. In pieces like this settee, it is easy to see why the period—which was overwhelmingly influenced by the large variety of revival styles—has been called Victorian Eclecticism.

-Brittany Spencer-King, Research Assistant

January 30, 2013 at 9:00 am Leave a comment

Over Sea and Land … and into the Victorian Parlor

Wardian case

OH.GF.1980.11, Wardian case – Miniature Church, 20th century, Wood, Glass, 27” x 16.5” x 12.5”

Often referred to as the Victorian Era, the nineteenth century was characterized by a growing interest in the collection, preservation, and identification of botanical specimens. New species of plants were carefully imported to England and America from all over the world, and cultivation of these exotics became a popular pastime. This interest was not met without challenges. The soot and pollution from the factories of the Industrial Revolution made it difficult for new plant species to survive. A London surgeon and amateur naturalist, Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward (1791-1868) stumbled upon a solution one day when he noticed that a bulb he had moved to a glass jar, and then forgotten, was thriving in this little habitat. Soon after this discovery, he began making ‘closely glazed cases’ (sic) for growing and extending the life of plants. These glass plant cases, renamed Wardian cases in homage to their inventor, were like tiny greenhouses that were sealed but not airtight. They provided an atmosphere free of pollution with ample light, heat, and moisture ideal for the cultivation of exotics. 

The invention of the Wardian case also allowed for new possibilities for transporting plants across long distances. Shipping during the nineteenth century is not what we know today: no priority mail or next-day air delivery options. Railroads, carriages and ships took weeks to deliver plants to a location. Inside a Wardian case the survival rate was considerably higher, as plants were able to travel in a protective environment that provided for their every need.

Despite contributions to the study of botany and improvements to the transportation of plants, the Wardian case is typically associated with household décor rather than invention. Their small size made them accessible to a larger portion of society who could not afford to own greenhouses. Because of their ability to preserve plants indoors, Wardian cases were brought into the parlors and drawing rooms of the Victorian household. This was in large part due to the encouragement of growing and tending to plants as a suitable hobby for young ladies. To suit the Victorian taste for decoration, cases were made to look like miniature buildings such as churches and famous houses. Comprised of a variety of materials that were suited to any price range, they were made in all shapes, sizes, and styles. Their popularity and availability made them a staple of fashionable drawing rooms.

This Wardian case in the Smithsonian Gardens’ Garden Furnishings and Horticultural Artifacts Collection is an example of a nineteenth century innovation and a characteristic feature of the Victorian-era domestic interior in both Britain and America.

 Further Reading:
Allen, David Elliston.  The Victorian Fern Craze: A History of Pteridomania. London: Hutchinson & Co, 1969.
Whittingham, Sarah. The Victorian Fern Craze. Oxford: Shire Publications Ltd., 2009.

 -Janie R Askew
Research Assistant, Smithsonian Gardens
MA Candidate, History of Decorative Arts
The Smithsonian Associates/George Mason University

 

January 4, 2013 at 10:15 am Leave a comment


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