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Victorian Fern Frenzy Seized Britain

The Victorian Fern Frenzy seized Britain from the 1850s through the 1890s. Amateur naturalists combed the countryside in pursuit of the trendy fern. Professional nurseries sprouted everywhere to meet the demand for new species. Waves of guidebooks were published to aid in the pursuit of the lacy treasures. The Victorian fern frenzy became the fashionable obsession that found its way throughout Victorian life and design.

No other frenzy swept so many people in such a cross section of society during the Victorian Era. According to Peter Boyd, author and former Curator of Shrewsbury Museums:

“Even the farm laborer or miner could have a collection of British ferns which he had collected in the wild and a common interest sometimes brought people of very different social backgrounds together.”

People poured over scores of fern identification books and journals like The Phytologist founded in 1841.

Fans pressed fern samples in albums and collected plants to grow in their gardens. For some it was a pleasant pastime. For others, it became a scientific pursuit or presented a commercial opportunity.

Those people with a serious interest in ferns were known as Pteridologists and could be said to be members of a fern cult rather than followers of a craze or fashion.” (Boyd)

According to Boyd, the passion for ferns started in the 1830s when both professional and amateur botanists were flocking to the countryside.

“It was a time when it was considered that studying the ‘Natural Wonders of Creation’ was an appropriate way of praising God. The study of flowers and other plants was considered to be fairly safe by the Church and could be pursued by mixed groups including men and women, whereas the study of animals was frowned upon as it might lead to embarrassing situations and ‘unsuitable parallels’ being drawn between the activities of animals and people!”

What Triggered The Victorian Fern Frenzy?

Historians offer an array of reasons, not the least of which is the abundance of beautiful ferns throughout the United Kingdom and the world.

Another trigger was the shift in lifestyle. Before the Industrial Revolution, most people in England and Wales lived in the country, surrounded by open green space. By 1851, nearly half of the population of Britain lived in towns where they had no access to open nature. Industrial growth and urban sprawl threatened the countryside.

The Open Space Movement campaigned to preserve open spaces for everyone. According to the nationtrust.org:

“Some campaigners were inspired by the beauty of nature, while others hoped that recreation in nature would improve people’s health or even morals. Radical campaigners wanted to stop the rich stealing open land from the poor, and conservative campaigners wanted to preserve traditional ways of life. “

The Wardian Case Fueled The Frenzy

Wardian Cases innovated by Dr. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward  shifted human and plant history. Constructed from wooden frames with airtight glass panels, professional Wardian Cases provided vehicles in which plants could travel safely between continents.  The most exotic species of fruits, flowers and ferns were in reach for those who could afford them.

Dr. Ward won the support of George Loddiges who provided plants for the first voyage of the Wardian Cases from England to Australia in 1833. Owner of the famed Loddiges and Sons Nursery in Hackney, London, Loddiges saw tremendous commercial potential in Ward’s invention for its ability to bring exotic plants, including new species of ferns, from far-flung places to the United Kingdom. It was the second type of Wardian case that created a new market and further fed the Victorian Fern Frenzy.

Loddiges became one of the specialty dealers who supplied both native species and exotic varieties.

The second type of Wardian case was built for domestic use with an eye to aesthetics. These were the great-grandmothers of terrariums. While unexciting by today’s standards, they were must-have items in fashionable Victorian homes.

Out of the Industrial Revolution, a middle class was emerging. They had more disposable income and leisure time for hobbies. With Wardian Cases, amateur horticulturists did not need sprawling grounds or greenhouses. Virtually anyone could grow ferns and rare plants in their home.

Trendsetter Queen Victoria Brought Plants Into Her Home

Queen Victoria (May 24, 1819 – January 22, 1901) was a trendsetter in significant ways, both politically and socially. On the domestic front, she popularized white wedding gowns, greeting cards and photo albums. She also made it fashionable to bring pets into the home along with decorated Christmas trees and a wide array of plants, including palms.

Ferns, palms and small trees enlivened fashionable Victorian parlors. Showy blooming plants including orchids, jasmine and fuchsias were also trending through the Victorian era.

Nineteenth-century architectural styles embraced the new fashion with design features such as bay windows to allow inhabitants to grow plants even in dank houses with little sunlight.

The Victorian Fern Frenzy Inspired Design

 Fern motifs infiltrated virtually every aspect of decorative arts, crafts and design, further fueling the Victorian Fern Frenzy. Ferns were used on everything from paintings and posters to wallpaper, textiles, glass sculptures, furniture and pottery. Designer pots, plant racks and vases often paid homage to the Victorian Fern Frenzy. Virtually every surface was at some time decorated by ferns.

Designers from The Arts and Crafts movement (1860s-1920s) created some of the most famous interior furnishings featuring fern motifs. According to TheArtStory.org, the founders of the movement were among the first critics of the Industrial Revolution because of their opposition to the “mechanized direction of society in the 19th century.” They sought to return to a simpler way of living that included quality design and production.

A leading figure in the Arts and Crafts Movement was William Morris (1834-1896). Many art historians regard him as one of the greatest designers of the movement. He was also a political theorist, writer and philosopher. (Look for our future post on William Morris.) In 1861, he and some colleagues established Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Company, which became Morris and Co. in 1875. The company was liquidated in 1940.

The company offered everything needed for interior design, from furnishings to textiles, carpets, stained glass, and even wallpapers. Their designs were fluid, drawing inspiration from nature. You can see inspiration from the Victorian Fern Frenzy in many of their most popular designs.

Louis Comfort Tiffany visited William Morris in England in 1867.

Tiffany embraced Art Nouveau, the international style that incorporated sinuous organic curves and forms. Tiffany produced innovative blown-glass objects that were one of a kind. This Favrile Glass Fern Vase is an extraordinary example of his natural, organic forms.

Was The Fern Frenzy A Form Of Madness Among Females?

Some people eyed anything young females enjoyed as highly suspicious when pursued with passion. Even bicycling was regarded as a subversive and potentially harmful activity that might lead to the dreaded “bicycle face.” 

Charles Kingsley, author of Glaucus, or the Wonders of the Shore (1855) coined the word pteridomania, a combination of Pteridophytes (ferns) and mania.

“Your daughters, perhaps, have been seized with the prevailing “Pteridomania,” and are collecting and buying ferns, with Ward’s cases wherein to keep them (for which you have to pay), and wrangling over unpronounceable names of species (which seem to be different in each new Fern-book that they buy) till the Pteridomania seems to you somewhat of a bore: and yet you cannot deny that they find an enjoyment in it, and are more active, more cheerful, more self-forgetful over it, than they would have been over novels and gossip, crochet and Berlin-wool. “ 

 Fern hunters collected so much of individual species that some became endangered, not unlike many species of birds thanks to the use of feathers in fashion from the 1870s through the early 1900s. 

Thankfully, conservationists came to the rescue by making the use of feathers unpopular.

“…once dislodged a ‘very desirable’ hart’s tongue fern that was growing on the side of a stone bridge spanning a fast-flowing stream near Barnstaple. He leant over the side and used a trowel lashed to a stick to tickle the fern out of its retreat. He then caught it in an open umbrella suspended under the arch by a piece of string.”

For years, locals made some money guiding fern hunters to secret spots. Eventually they realized it was more profitable to collect the ferns themselves and sell them directly or through mail order and nurseries.

They supplied the ‘addict’ with sought-after rarities, while asserting that it was far too dangerous for the lady or gentleman to find the plants themselves.

Writer Margaret Plues recalled that her specimen of maidenhair fern came from Ilfracombe, “but I had not the delight of finding it. The donkey-women make a monopoly of it, and sell it to all Fern-lovers. It was in vain to coax and wheedle, to promise a larger sum for the pleasure of gathering it myself.”

Sadly, it was too late for some areas that had been decimated by the fern frenzy. But locals were able to keep remaining sites secret, thereby protecting the ferns and the landscape from marauding hunters.

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