“Of a Purely Decorative Nature”: Palm Plants in a Victorian Home

A dense jungle comprised of a variety of flora scattered throughout the floor; a warm climate; at times described as humid; the location of scientific study. These descriptors, while suitable for a rainforest, also characterize the Victorian entry parlor, replete with palms, ferns, and other plants previously foreign to American domestic spaces. With long slender fan-shaped leaves and an “exotic” appeal, palms perfectly suited the aesthetics of the Victorian era (1837-1901). The Entry Parlor photograph illustrates an upper-class American Victorian home, distinguished by highly ornamented furniture, imported patterned rugs, and eclectic decor that relied heavily on palms for effect. Writing shortly after the Victorian period in 1909, Parker T. Barnes described palms as, “Among the best all-round house plants, of a purely decorative nature…” The profusion of palms in the photograph of an entry parlor highlights the aesthetic interest—verging at times on mania—that accompanied the plant’s integration into the Victorian home.

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An entry parlor of a Victorian home demonstrates the interest in palms and ferns during this period.  Photograph of an Entry Parlor, 1880-1890, Winterthur Library, Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera Coll. 182.

The idea of plants as decor for the domestic interior, while popularized in the 1870s and 1880s, was not altogether alien to Americans prior to the Victorian era. In colonial and early America, fresh cut flowers regularly filled large urns in wealthy households in warmer months and dried flowers took their place in winter. The transformation from cut flowers to potted plants in the Victorian home began in the 1850s, when massive greenhouses constructed of glass—a material rapidly developing from small panes to large sheets—were designed for public spaces. The technological advances that enabled the production of sheet glass allowed for larger windows in domestic architecture, providing plants sunlight. Together with central heating, which became popular in American homes in the second half of the 1800s, industrial advances helped the Victorian home become an environment capable of sustaining potted plants.

Like wallpaper, furniture, and other elements used to decorate the home, species of plants were subject to design trends. Palms and ferns, viewed in Victorian America as being closely-related, were among the most acclaimed plants during the period for their aesthetic qualities and resilience. An 1870 issue of the New York Evening Post details the early acceptance of the plant: “Ferns are beginning to be used in Boston, but not to the extent that their beauty demands.” Plants like azaleas were also appreciated due to the ease of growing bulbed plants and the novelty of having them indoors. To have an exotic plant was to be an interesting, worldly individual. A collage of Clematis Lodge demonstrates the degree to which potted plants constituted one’s design schema, the artist integrating a potted plant into her ideal interior. Americans acquired these plants initially from European greenhouses primarily in France and Britain, and later from itinerant seed and bulb salesmen and American greenhouses.

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A collage of an ideal Victorian household includes a potted palm.  Clemantis Lodge Collage Album, c. 1895.  Collage of photographs and wallpaper.  Winterthur Library, Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera.

While male authors were among the earliest proponents of potted plants for the interior, women in Victorian households were often responsible for tending to them. They used plants not only to bring life to decorated rooms, but also as a means for displaying their knowledge of the scientific qualities and names of plants. The potted plant photographed in the lower left hand corner of this entry parlor above displays a tag, presumably used to remind its owner of the genus and species of the plant. The palm plant, present in the domestic space due to the technological advances that allowed for greater light and more stable temperatures, was a decorative innovation during the Victorian era that served as a central design component and a genteel pastime for women. Palms present in the Victorian household speak to the gendered, technological, and stylistic advances of the period.

 

By Trent Rhodes, WPAMC Class of 2018

 

This post is part of a series written in the fall of 2016 for a Historic Interiors class at Winterthur.  Students explored photographs housed in the miscellaneous photograph collection (Collection 182) in the Winterthur Library’s Joseph Downs Collection. These scenes each reveal a treasure trove of objects that invite further examination, speculation, and connections to other Winterthur collections.

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Additional Reading

Barnes, Parker Thayer. 1909. House Plants and How to Grow Them. New York: Doubleday, Page.

Horwood, Catherine. 2007. Potted History: the Story of Plants in the Home. London: Frances Lincoln.

Martin, Tovah. 1988. Once Upon a Windowsill: a History of Indoor Plants. Portland, OR: Timber Press.



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