I intended to write a short but sweet post on the “fern dish” which was very popular in the United States from the 1890’s into the first few decades of the twentieth century. But then, being the research nut that I am, I thought I should investigate why and when the fern had become popular as a house plant. And I discovered pteridomania, or “fern fever”, a Victorian craze. I had suspected that the origin of growing ferns indoors began in England but had no idea how popular it was. The following was taken from Wikipedia:
Your daughters, perhaps, have been seized with the prevailing ‘Pteridomania’…and wrangling over unpronounceable names of species (which seem different in each new Fern-book that they buy)…and yet you cannot deny that they find 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.
“According to one author:
Although the main period of popularity of ferns as a decorative motif extended from the 1850s until the 1890s, the interest in ferns had really begun in the late 1830s when the British countryside attracted increasing numbers of amateur and professional botanists. New discoveries were published in periodicals, particularly The Phytologist: a popular botanical miscellany, which first appeared in 1844. Ferns proved to be a particularly fruitful group of plants for new records because they had been studied less than flowering plants. Also, ferns were most diverse and abundant in the wilder, wetter, western and northern parts of Britain which were becoming more accessible through the development of better roads and the railway.
“The collection of ferns drew enthusiasts from different social classes and it is said that “even the farm labourer 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.” “
The following illustration was taken from The Illustrated London News, July 1, 1871:
“For some a fashionable hobby and for others a more serious scientific pursuit, fern collecting became commercialized with the sale of merchandise for fern collectors. Equipped with The Ferns of Great Britain and Ireland or one of the many other books sold for fern identification, collectors sought out ferns from dealers and in their native habitats across the British Isles and beyond. Fronds were pressed in albums for display in homes. Live plants were also collected for cultivation in gardens and indoors. Nurseries provided not only native species but exotic species from the Americas and other parts of the world.
“The Wardian case, a forerunner of the modern terrarium, was invented about 1829 by a physician to protect his ferns from the air pollution of 19th century London. Wardian cases soon became features of stylish drawing rooms in Western Europe and the United States and helped spread the fern craze and the craze for growing orchids that followed. Ferns were also cultivated in fern houses (greenhouses devoted to ferns) and in outdoor ferneries.”
It appears that it was popular in England during the Victorian age to to use “fern baskets” to contain your ferns. I would think that the woven basket was in keeping with the natural habitat of the fern, and an attempt in bringing that woodland theme indoors.
The following advertisement came from the 1877 English publication “The Fern World” by Francis George Heath:
Another page from this same publication states that the pot or receptacle could be made of crystal, majolica, terra cotta, silver and even gold!
While, the fern craze was in full swing in England during the 1870’s and 1880’s, it really hadn’t caught on in the United States as yet. While the 1886 Meriden Britannia catalog showed many palm and floral designs, less than a handful of objects incorporated images of ferns. Following is one:
The American Fern Society was founded in 1893 and is still active today with approximately 900 members worldwide. This certainly evidences the beginnings of pteridomania reaching the shores of the United States.
Researching periodicals, it doesn’t appear that the term “fern dish” really caught on until 1897 or so. The following is a page from the 1896 “Busiest House in America” which describes “fern or flower pot” but not “fern dish”:
However, by the following year, the term “fern dish” was used:
And this ad was found in an 1898 “Youth’s Companion” magazine:
The popularity of the “fern dish” continued well into the twentieth century. This beautifully written article discusses plant selections for the dish.
Continuation of above article….
Even Arts & Crafts designers were embracing the fern dish, as is shown in the wonderful example in copper and brass, designed by Karl Kipp circa 1911 for Roycroft. This fern dish is currently on exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art:
Inventors were coming up with new and improved uses for the fern dish, such as this curious combination of electric fan and fern dish shown in the 1912-1913 “Popular Electricity and World’s Advance”:
And patents were being obtained related to the fern dish:
The 1915 G. W. Huntley catalog showed cut glass fern dishes; this is one:
And very creative “fernery” designs were being advertised. You could combine your gold fish, parakeet and ferns all together in some of them:
Pottery fern dishes, such as majolica, were also popular. Roseville Pottery manufactured many different styles well into the 1930’s and perhaps beyond. The Roseville Pottery fern dish shown below is a wonderful example… It’s available for sale at GoldenDaysAntiques shop on Etsy and can be found here: https://www.etsy.com/listing/158276343/antique-roseville-pottery-fern-planter And make sure to check out all the eclectic vintage home decor for sale at GoldenDaysAntiques; it’s a fantastic shop. Shop home page is here: https://www.etsy.com/shop/GoldenDaysAntiques
In researching this article, I thought about the antique or vintage silverplate casserole holders or servers that are missing a top or ceramic insert that you can find at tag sales or online. Some of these are relatively inexpensive and incredibly beautiful. Why not use one of these to serve as your “fern dish”? Adorn your sideboard or dining room table with one of these…you might start a new trend (or should I say revive an old trend). Fern fever can be contagious!
The Reed & Barton casserole holder shown above can be found at my Etsy shop here: https://www.etsy.com/listing/163726379/reed-barton-silver-plate-casserole
So now, don’t you feel like going out and foraging for ferns?