Over Sea and Land … and into the Victorian Parlor
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.
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