Wardian Cases and the Victorian Fern Craze

Glass Wardian Case at Vaucluse House , used to transport and display plants and ferns

Glass Wardian case, also might be called a Terrarium, with painted tin plate frame and four glass sides Photograph © Nicholas Watt, Sydney Living Museums

Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward was a physician who lived near the docklands in London's east. In 1829 he was having little success with his fern garden, however carefully he planted and tended to it. A man of many interests, he set his garden plans aside and embarked on a new project: the study of a sphinx moth emerging from its chrysalis. He buried a chrysalis in some earth inside a jar, sealed it with a tin lid, and left it in his garden for observation.

The story did not end happily for the moth. It never emerged. Something else did though: a fern and a blade of grass had begun to grow inside the sealed container. This seemed rather a miracle to Ward, as he'd had such little success with his fern garden. In the constant environment of the jar however, protected from the polluted environment, the little fern thrived.

This experiment led to the development of the Wardian Case, a glass case for ferns and other plants that was used in the transport of plants by ship and also as a decorative feature in fashionable homes. As the Victorian mania for ferns gathered force, the sizes, styles and adaptations of Wardian cases multiplied. Fern mania, or ‘pteridomania’, lasted for a surprisingly long and intense period, from the 1830s to the early 20th century. People went on fern-collecting expeditions, wore clothing patterned with ferns, sat in rooms with fern patterned wallpaper, drinking from fern-patterned teacups...

What was it about ferns that people found so entrancing?

The Childrens bedroom at Vaucluse House showcasing the Wardian case filled with plants on the windowsil
The children's bedroom at Vaucluse House where the Wardian case lives on the sun drenched Windowsill. Photograph © Jamie North, For Sydney Living Museums

In part their popularity can be attributed to increasing urbanisation and industrialisation. Ferns with their lush, dewy foliage, were associated with clean air and health, something rather lacking in places such as Nathaniel Ward's East End garden. British garden writer Shirley Hibberd, wrote of  the benefits of ferns in the home in The Fern Garden, one of the many Victorian guidebooks on the subject:

In the heart of a great city where gardens are unknown, and even the graveyards are desecrated by accumulations of filth, the fern case is a boon of priceless value. It is a bit of the woodside sealed down with the life of the wood in it...

As well as a connection to the natural world, they were also a status symbol. In his classic Rustic Adornments for Homes of Taste, Hibberd discusses the potential of cases to be “noble pieces of furniture” with “graceful outlines”.

Fern mania spread from Britain to the colonies. In 1863 Louisa Atkinson observed in her Sydney Morning Herald ‘A Voice From the Country’ column that "there are few who do not admire ferns’. And in Sydney, as in London, Wardian cases allowed the beauties of the woodland to be admired and tended in miniature.

Such a miniature woodland can be found on the windowsill of the children’s room at Vaucluse House, where a c.1880 Wardian Case is on display.

(Further reading: Fern Fever by Sarah Whittingham, Frances Lincoln Publishing, 2012).

The Timber Wardian Case at Elizabeth Farm
The much larger timber and glass Wardian case at Elizabeth Farm. These cases played a very important part in the successful international transfer of plant by sea; particularly on the long voyages to Australia from Britain, South Africa, South America, China and India. The protected environment inside the Wardian Cases meant plants survived the salt air exposure and could be kept on deck in bright sunlight. Photograph Steven Halliday © Sydney Living Museums

About the author

Vanessa Berry, visitor interpretation officer Sydney Living Museums.

Vanessa Berry

Visitor Interpretation Officer

Vanessa is a writer and artist and the author of Mirror Sydney, a blog which investigates details, traces and hidden histories in the city and suburbs. She is a Visitor Interpretation Officer in the City Portfolio.