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Catalog Data

Metal, glass
8 1/2 × 13 1/4 × 21 in. (21.6 × 33.7 × 53.3 cm)
Glass gardens
ca. 1900
Victorian (1837-1901)
Wardian case in the form of a miniature greenhouse. The case is constructed of glass panels with soldered metal framing. One of the top panels is on a hinge, the length of the roof line, allowing top access into the case. The glass frame rests in a white painted metal tray (possibly zinc). Originally a simple glass container, these cases evolved to suit the Victorian taste for decoration. Cases were often finished with gilding or enamel and could be made to look like miniature buildings such as churches and famous houses. They were made in all shapes, sizes, and styles, such as Gothic Revival, Neo-Grec, Rococo Revival, and Rustic, as suited to the design and budget of home. Cases were often placed on their own decorative stand, and became status symbols of the fashionable drawing room.
Label Text:
The nineteenth century was characterized by a growing interest in science and discovery. 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 in Victorian society. This interest was not met without challenges. The plants collected during the worldwide exploration occurring during this time often perished in transport on their long journeys. Furthermore, pollution in cities from the burgeoning factories and modes of transportation of the Industrial Revolution, along with the gas lighting and coal fires in the home made it difficult for plant species to flourish.
In 1829, 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 subsequently forgotten was thriving in its little habitat. Soon after this discovery, he began making “closely glazed cases” that were sealed but not airtight, though some were left open, for growing and extending the life of plants. Renamed “Wardian Cases” in homage to their inventor, these cases were like miniature greenhouses, which provided a closed microcosm, free of pollution, with ample light, heat, and moisture. The Wardian Case was the prototype for further development of glass gardens such as the terrarium. They were fabricated in various forms, sizes, and degrees of sophistication for uses such as transportation, cultivation, scientific study, and parlor decor. They could be very large ranging from one to six feet in height and were often up to a yard long. The base was usually made of zinc, and the sides were paneled with heavy leaded glass. These glass containers held soil and plants and could be opened to access the plants inside for maintenance. When closed, a glass garden created a unique environment for plant growth, allowing control over the light, heat, and humidity. The principal of these cases could be adapted into many forms, from simply placing a bell jar over a flower pot to large and elaborate cases with decorative finishes.
Glass gardens were brought into the parlors, window gardens, and conservatories of the nineteenth-century household because of their ability to preserve plants indoors. These cases also provided an escape to back to nature and made the cultivation of exotics accessible to a larger portion of society, as well as satisfying the Victorian preoccupation with novelty, the exotic, and forming collections. Glass gardens were a canvas to display one’s good taste, by crowding as many botanicals as possible with fossils, stones, minerals, shells, and figurines to create dynamic scenes and dramatic displays behind the glass. They were frequently used for the cultivation of ferns, a Victorian favorite, which led to their designation as fern cases or ferneries. By the 1850s, glass gardens were an essential feature in the respectable, middle-class household in America, and thriving plants in an extravagant glass garden became a marker of status and good breeding.
case furniture  Search this
cases (containers)  Search this
ferneries (greenhouses)  Search this
glass  Search this
terrariums  Search this
Wardian cases  Search this
Garden ornaments and furniture  Search this
indoor gardening  Search this
Credit Line:
Smithsonian Gardens, Horticultural Artifacts Collection.
Accession number:
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Usage conditions apply
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Horticultural Artifacts Collection
Data Source:
Smithsonian Gardens