The Victorian Fashionable Fascination with Ferns: A Steampunk Perspective

Charles Sillem Lidderdale, 'The Fern Gatherer', circa 1877

Charles Sillem Lidderdale, ‘The Fern Gatherer’, circa 1877

The name of Pteridomania was coined by Charles Kingsley, who wrote: “Your daughters, perhaps, have been seized with the prevailing ‘Pteridomania’ and are collecting and buying ferns…and wrangling over inpronouncable names of species, (which seem to be different with every new fern that they buy), till the Pteridomania seems to you something of a bore.”

Fern gatherers - Victorian image from the collection of the National Library of Australia, Canberra

Fern gatherers – Victorian image from the collection of the National Library of Australia, Canberra

The Victorians had their fads, just like our modern Western society. In a previous blog post, I discussed their obsession with all things Egyptian: Egyptomania. Another of their passing passions was for collecting ferns: Pteridomania. This word for fern mania derives from the classification term, Pteridophyta, which refers to vascular plants that reproduce via spores rather than seeds. (The more correct taxonomic term for ferns is Monilophytes.) The Victorians became so consumed with the fascination with ferns that they even used the fern pattern to decorate their furniture, clothes and jewellery.

Antique Victorian Scottish Agate Large Silver Fern Leaf Brooch

Antique Victorian Scottish Agate Large Silver Fern Leaf Brooch

Fern-decorated Mauchlinware

Fern-decorated Mauchlin ware

1860's Fern and Plaid, Green and Black Dress

1860’s Fern and Plaid, Green and Black Dress

Victorian silver fern pin with beaded edge, circa 1880

Victorian silver fern pin with beaded edge, circa 1880

What created this craze? I think there is no single event, but a series of interlinked social and cultural phenomena that lead to the pteridomania of the mid-to-late Victorian era. First off, the practice scientific study wasn’t seen as restricted to academia, as it is today; most private citizens of means dabbled within the blossoming fields of science on some level. Some collected scientific curiosities – hence the increased fashion for curiosity cabinets to display their collections; some collected fossils; some were amateur biologist, chemists and geologists. And Pteridomania was a democratic hobby, as even the poorest of individuals could afford a fern collection of their local species, all they needed was to wander through their nearest woodland path with a fork and a bucket.

Hermann Kern's 'Der Botaniker' - a Victorian botanist with his vasculum

Hermann Kern’s ‘Der Botaniker’ – a Victorian botanist with his vasculum

Flowers and ferns were seen as ‘appropriate’ interest for ladylike women and girls with enquiring minds, unlike the ‘hard sciences’ of natural philosophy, maths and chemistry. Which is odd, because collecting botanical specimens can be hard work – ask Richard Spruce or any of the dozens of adventurous botanists who were discovering new species all over the world. I can’t help but wonder if these ‘rock star’ explorers had something of a following – and so these fans emulated their hero. This would account for the large number of young women who became fern fanciers and collectors. Of course, no matter how academic a woman’s study of ferns might have been, she was never recognised as a pteridologist. Real science was considered the prerogative of men only; remember that Beatrix Potter was an expert in English fungi and unable to find academic recognition for her work.

Gardener among the ferns in Scarsdale, Victoria, circa 1880

Gardener among the ferns in Scarsdale, Victoria, circa 1880

Another influence would have the Great Exhibition of 1851. The Crystal Palace was a huge hit with the public, and started a craze of its own for glasshouses, conservatories, orangeries, and Wardian boxes. It made glass easily available to the middle class, and they took to it with a passion. It follows that, if you have a conservatory, you must fill it with something. Ferns fitted the bill, being both decorative and thriving in the artificial environments.

Ferns under glass

Ferns under glass

Wardian Case in shape of mansion.

Wardian Case in shape of mansion.

And ferns are pretty, in the same way that flowers are pretty, with lush, lacy foliage. Some people bought their ferns, some people collected their ferns from the wild, and the real obsessives did a bit of both. The marketing experts of the era hopped on the bandwagon and ferns were soon a major feature of interior decorating and the fashion industries. Specialist suppliers, nurseries and street vendors competed to keep up with demand. Pteridomania even triggered a botanical crime wave. During the 1880s and 1890s a rash of fern-related felonies prompted a string of prosecutions as private land was plundered in search of rare specimens.

A young lady selling ferns. Titled 'Christmas is Coming', it appeared in the 'Illustrated Sydney News', 20th December, 1879

A young lady selling ferns. Titled ‘Christmas is Coming’, it appeared in the ‘Illustrated Sydney News’, 20th December, 1879

When you think about it, collecting ferns is a rather nice pastime if you don’t mind getting out into the fresh air and sunshine. For the casual collector, it was a pleasant outing for an afternoon, with a picnic lunch and good company. The really dedicated or professional pteridologist would wear rugged clothes and carry a vasculum for keeping the specimens safe. A vasculum is a tin lined with damp moss, used by botanists for all sort of plants, but vasculums are especially good at keeping delicate ferns from being crushed or bruised. The enthusiasm for collection had an enormous impact on the fern population in the British Isles; some wild population still haven’t recovered.

Vasculum for collecting botanical specimens.

Vasculum for collecting botanical specimens.

Vasculum with fern

The zeal of Victorian collectors led to significant reductions in the wild populations of a number of the rarer species. Oblong Woodsia came under severe threat in Scotland, especially in the Moffat Hills. This area once had the most extensive UK populations of the species but there now remain only a few small colonies whose future remains under threat. The related Alpine Woodsia suffered a similar fate, although the risks were not all to the plants. John Sadler, later a curator of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, nearly lost his life obtaining a fern tuft on a cliff near Moffat, and a botanical guide called William Williams died collecting Alpine Woodsia in Wales in 1861. His body was found at the foot of the cliff where Edward Lhwyd had first collected the species nearly two centuries earlier.

The Killarney Fern, considered to be one of Europe’s most threatened plants and once found on Arran, was thought to be extinct in Scotland due to the activities of 19th century collectors, but the species has since been discovered on Skye in its gametophyte form. Dickie’s Bladder-fern, which was discovered growing on base-rich rocks in a sea cave on the coast of Kincardineshire in 1838. By 1860 the original colony seemed to have been extirpated, although the species has recovered and today there is a population of more than 100 plants there, where it grows in a roof fissure. – from Wikipedia

There were who people pressed and dried their specimens, and either displayed them in frames or kept them in albums. Some people used their collections in craft projects. These preserved specimens have become highly collectable for modern enthusiasts.

FERN – Magic, Fascination, Confidence, Shelter

FERN (MAIDENHAIR) – Secret bond of love, Discretion

FERN (ROYAL) – Reverie

Victorian Language of Flowers

Mid-1800s Mourning Brooch

Mid-1800s Mourning Brooch

American Victorian-era gown, circa 1850

American Victorian-era gown, circa 1850

Victorian bog oak large fern brooch

Victorian bog oak large fern brooch

As a writer in the Steampunk genre, Pteridomania is a great resource for analogies and metaphors. Ferns are part of the Victorian language of flowers, and can be used to represent a handful of different things; it is rather ironic that ferns can symbolise fascination. The mania itself can represent society’s need for amusement, to conform, or a desire for more nature in humanity’s culture and environment. And – like the ferns themselves – you will be able to add grace and subtlety to your setting.

Fernware fan

Fernware fan

There is more Steampunk goodness to enjoy at https://www.facebook.com/SteampunkSunday?ref=hl

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4 Comments

Filed under Analogy, History, Metaphors, Setting, Steampunk, Victorian-era Fashion

4 responses to “The Victorian Fashionable Fascination with Ferns: A Steampunk Perspective

  1. But not a single mention of New Zealand?
    ‘Annexed’ in 1840, it was quite definitely a prize for young Queen Vic. And perhaps no surprise, then, that the fern became one of its enduring emblems – still loudly applauded (and stuck on the back of cars) to this day – the famous ‘Silver Fern’.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyathea_dealbata

  2. A most interesting post, especially with all the reasons for collecting ferns, how it got started and the meanings of the ferns. Totally enjoyed this read.

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