“Nature is a haunted house- but Art- is a house that tries to be haunted.”- Emily Dickinson
After Charles Darwin’s, On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, the Victorian public became fascinated with natural history. Women, in particular, took up the hobby of collecting, preserving, and studying specimens from plants and birds, to butterflies and insects. The pastime was considered both ladylike and educational (unlike fancywork which many women found tedious). Poet Emily Dickinson started a herbarium when she was a teenager attending Amherst Academy. Completed, her sixty-six page herbarium contains 424 plant specimens that she labeled with the corresponding scientific name.
“My plants look finely now. I am going to send you a little geranium leaf, which you must press for me. Have you made an herbarium yet? I hope you will if you have not, it would be such a treasure to you.”- Emily Dickinson in a letter to her friend, Abiah Root, in May 1845.
In July 1841, Godey’s Lady’s Book stated, “If memoranda were made of the places where such wild flowers are found, the latitude, with the common name, and whether they grow singly or in groups, profusely or sparsely, with the time of flowering, ladies might add something to the history of our Flora worthy of remembrance, and particularly so, would they make themselves acquainted with, and note their botanical characteristics.”
While magazines were filled with articles by female botanists, other women preferred to pen tales about the flowers and wildlife about them. In 1838, New England- born Mary Peabody, wrote The Flower People, a children’s guide to horticulture. While Mary tutored both males and females in German, French, and Latin, and wrote textbooks on subjects ranging from grammar to geography in her spare time, botany remained her greatest passion. Within the book she was able to share her passion and teach children as magically talking flowers converse with a young girl in her mother’s garden.
Lousia May Alcott’s first published book, Flower Fables, was dedicated to fellow Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson’s daughter, Ellen. “Dear Nellie…..Give my love to the Concord Fairies if you chance to see them, though I believe they spend their winters in Italy on a count (sic) of our climate…”
Along with studying and writing about botany, taxidermy, and horticulture, females also began creating bric-a-bracs for their houses made out of shells, cones, flowers, birds, and leaves. Fern collecting (Pteridomania) was particularly popular as ferns were hardy enough to grow in the darkened drawing rooms of the 19th century, and because their sober color was deemed elegant in comparison to brightly colored flowers. Along with collecting ferns, women also bred and cultivated them. Some were dried, pressed, and framed. Others were displayed in Wardian cases, which were airtight, enclosed glass cases. More elaborate showcases included miniature gardens and aquariums.
“…At least you will confess that the abomination of ‘Fancy-work’… has all but vanished from your drawing-room since the Lady Ferns and Venus’s hair appeared; and that you could not help yourself looking now and then at the said Venus’s hair, and agreeing that Nature’s real beauties were somewhat superior to the ghastly woollen caricatures which they had succeeded.”- from the novel, Glaucus by Charles Kingsley.
- source: “Inside the Victorian Home” – by Judith Flanders
- source: “Peabody Sisters” by Megan Marshall