history of terrariums + terrarium roundup

Image above: French Victorian white-painted wrought iron terrarium, $27,5000

Today, Grace and I are heading to Terrain, one of our favorite stores — we’ve honestly made the trip from Brooklyn to Philadelphia just to eat in the greenhouse cafe. The store is filled with some of the best terrarium accessories ever. The terrarium craze is certainly not a new phenomenon. It was perfected by those masters of obsession, the Victorians.

Image above: From The Ferns of Great Britain and Ireland by Thomas Moore, 1857, from the New York Public Library

We can trace the history of the terrarium back to another Victorian obsession — ferns. The newfound prosperity in Victorian Britain resulted in a lot of women who didn’t work as a nod to status and had a lot of time on their hands. The Victorian era was also all about self-improvement, so these women made things. They cut out paper, made shell crafts, sewed and collected ferns. Collecting ferns was a relatively inexpensive hobby — you just had to go out and hunt. The fact that ferns lacked any flamboyantly colored flowers made them seem more serious. Fern collecting was one of the few egalitarian hobbies; it was appropriate for both men and women and for people from all social backgrounds. Ferns were the chosen motif for everything from coffeepots and fish knives to printed textiles and jet jewelry. — Amy A.

Favorite terrarium tools and vessels!

More about the history of terrariums + terrarium accessories after the jump . . .

Images above from left: Common Fern-Shade with Ornamental Stand and Terrarium with Ferns and Ivy, 1870s, from the New York Public Library

Like many plant-obsessed Victorians, Nathaniel Ward was a London doctor by profession who had an intense enthusiasm for botany. But Dr. Ward’s plants, particularly his ferns, were having difficulty surviving the polluted air of 1820s London. It was intensely frustrating for a passionate plant collector to not be able to keep the plant of the moment alive. While puzzling over the problem with his ferns, Dr. Ward noticed that the plants placed in his covered insect jars (for studying moths and caterpillars) were actually taking root in the soil. It was a light-bulb moment — Dr. Ward realized that his miniature greenhouse could actually protect the plants enough so that they would thrive. He spread the word of his discovery and even published a book on the subject — On the Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases (full text from Google), and soon there was a Wardian Case (as the first terrariums were known) in every Victorian home. (Those Wardian Cases paved the way for the orchid obsession that was soon to follow.)

Images above from left: Fern vase and Wardian Cases, 1870s, from the New York Public Library

Not only was Dr. Ward’s discovery a boon for London plant lovers, but it also made the British tea obsession possible. Prior to the invention of the Wardian Case, it had been nearly impossible to grow Chinese tea plants outside China. Finally in the 1840s and ’50s, a botanist named Robert Fortune was able to use the Wardian Cases to successfully transport Chinese tea plants to India, and the Indian tea industry took off. By the mid-19th century, the price of tea had dropped so much that it became the most popular drink for all classes in Britain.

Image above: Terrarium “Comeback” reported in the NY Times

Books to Read

Fact to Know

  • The Pará rubber tree from Brazil was successfully shipped to Kew, then on to Malaya and Sri Lanka, in a Wardian Case, thus establishing the British colonial rubber industry. This would later prove to be an invaluable resource during the two World Wars, and rubber contributed immeasurably to the Allies’ victory in the Second World War.

Image above: Sewing 101: Sew a Terrarium

We’ve done countless terrarium crafts on Design*Sponge — even a Terrarium How-To Video with Sprout Home. Here are a few of my favorite projects:

Image above: Twig Terrarium in Brooklyn creates custom terrariums and offers DIY kits for those who would like a little help. (AND they’re working on a terrarium book — out next year!)

Images above: 1. Hanging Terrarium with Succulent Planting Kit, $28–$78; 2. Recycled Utility Meter Box Terrarium, $125; 3. Tillandsia Spray, $24; 4. Terrarium Toolkit, $50; 5. Terrarium Tools, $35; 6. Miniature Chipmunk, $24; 7. Roped Cloche, $88; 8. Hanging Bubble Terrarium, $78; 9. Vintage 21″ Reclaimed Wood Terrarium with Tray and Saw Horse Stand, $75 (also a great source for apothecary jars)

  1. What a great post! I just love terrariums! Glad I could get a little history :)

  2. Chelsea says:

    What a great round up. I am finally unpacked and ready to create a tiny little terrarium world.

  3. mh says:

    anyone in SF looking for help in making terrariums should look in to taking a class at Workshop in NoPa. Kelly Malone does great work: http://www.workshopsf.org

  4. I had no idea that terrariums had such an interesting history. And that Victorian-era terrarium is incredible!

  5. Hannah Nunn says:

    Fascinating. Thanks goodness for the Victorians!

  6. What an incredible post! I’ve been seeing terrariums EVERYWHERE lately, a friend of mine has made six of them in the past 2 weeks! So fun to get some background history on the whole topic!

  7. rachel says:

    i love history, thanks for sharing all the information and the gorgeous images!

  8. There are many terraruims on display every March at the Philadelphia Flower Show, which the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society sponsors. PHS members compete for the blue ribbon.

  9. Caroline says:

    Absolutely LOVE the recycled utility box terrarium. Great Post!

  10. AlbA says:

    WOW! I love terrariums! Last week I published a post about them with your DIY video

  11. great post! a history lesson and some contemporary inspiration. the victorians really did it up! i love how terrariums bridge science & art.

  12. Katie says:

    So fantastic! I love terrariums, they look fantastic everywhere! xo You taught me a lot!

  13. Susan says:

    Terrain is certainly worth the trip–sounds like the cake tasting/terrarium day was fabulous!!

  14. Jem says:

    So glad to know the history of this lovely display. I created a small felted terrarium in my senior year of college. It was great fun :)

  15. Kate says:

    I don’t blame you for going to Terrain just for the cafe. The whole place is so inspiring!

  16. Tamara M. says:

    I really enjoyed the pictures but better yet the idea is amazing. What a fun activity to do with my kids. Thank you

  17. susy beaty says:

    wow, would love to have 1 of those old terrariums. BEAUTIFUL…

  18. Bethany says:

    I keep seeing succulents in all these terrarium posts. In my experience and what I’ve read, succulents need good drainage and dry conditions. Am I missing something? Can anyone comment on how well these succulents did in a terrarium? I even posted about it because I have never had any luck planting them in terrariums.

  19. Brooke says:

    Last year, I was planning on making a terrarium and found everything I needed…except the plants! Where do people find tiny, dark-loving plants for terrariums? I looked at several garden stores and couldn’t find any of the right size or that would tolerate the very dark indoor conditions of my Seattle apartment.

  20. Martrese says:

    Ooohh, I’ll be heading back to my hometown of Philly next week. It’s a shame Terrain’s web site offers no information as to the location. :(

    1. Amy Azzarito says:

      Martrese – To the location of the store? http://styers.shopterrain.com/ It’s amazing. Definitely go have lunch in the cafe! -AmyA

  21. Andrew says:

    The plant mister is $11 at Lee Valley (http://www.leevalley.com/en/garden/page.aspx?p=65654&cat=2,2280,54307&ap=1).. tweezers $2-3 (http://www.fcsurplus.ca/shopping/shopexd.asp?id=15824).. use a fork out of your cutlery drawer for the rake… or spend $50 if you want to give your money away.

  22. Virginia says:

    Loved this post! Check out our work at Seed to Stem!

  23. To anyone interested in purchasing a beautiful old terrarium “Wardian Case”, please see here!



  24. gillian says:

    I live in Marin County, Ca. Anyone interested in getting together
    to make these.

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  26. Sam says:

    this really helped me in my project for the history of terrariums!

  27. Sam says:

    it was AWESOME!


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