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When Fern Fever Gripped a Nation

Apr 3, 2012

by Chappell Ellison handmade and vintage goods

While toys and literature are at the heart of most of today’s popular trends, nature provided the basis for the fads of the pre-technological era. During the 19th century, when scientific thought flourished and Darwinian-themed lectures and specimen collections were the norm in Victorian society, England became swept up in Pteridomania: the widespread craze for ferns.

Pteridomania wasn’t the first plant-based obsession recorded in history; the Dutch went wild for tulips during the 17th-century, when the bulbs were worth their weight in gold. Historian Sarah Whittingham expertly documents the 19th century’s widespread fern fad in her recent book, Fern Fever: The Story of Pteridomania. “If you decorated and furnished your house, went to the seaside, strolled in pleasure gardens, patronised the theatre and concerts, visited exhibitions, read novels, played music or spent time in hospital, you encountered ferns and ferneries,” says Whittingham in an interview with The Scotsman.

Emmy Lucy

A stereoscopic image of Victorian women having tea among ferns.

The trend began in 1829 when botanist Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward developed the Wardian case, a small glass terrarium that created perfect conditions for growing ferns. At the time, ferns were difficult to come by in England, which lacked the muggy, tropical weather that the ancient plants required to thrive. Ward’s invention opened up a whole new area of study, and soon London-based horticulturists built greenhouses solely to cultivate ferns. Edward Newman’s popular A History of British Ferns helped to solidify the fad, leading shop owners and street vendors to sell as many ferns as they could get their hands on. Plants were imported from the likes of Borneo and Brazil, but that didn’t stop enthusiasts from taking extreme measures to acquire their own samples, and collecting exotic fern species from treacherous terrain occasionally became a life-or-death situation, responsible for injuring or killing botanists.

Soon, frond fixation had saturated England and spread to America, moving beyond the garden and greenhouse and into the home. The fern’s symmetrical structure became a popular decorative motif, applied to everything from gowns and accessories to dishware and art. Ferns became a sign of good taste; compared to the ornate and cluttered Late Victorian aesthetic, they appeared modern and restrained.

Fern fever peaked in the late 19th century. “No craze lasts for ever,” says Whittingham. “Pteridomania may have endured a lot longer than most infatuations, in its various guises, but eventually it was not an exception to this rule.” Ferns connected science-loving Victorians to the Jurassic era, but they also served as a social calling card, allowing the individual to feel as if they were part of a larger movement. Despite the drain on money and time, it is this connective element of fads that continues to captivate society today.

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