The Victorian Female Passion for Botany

“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

 

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12 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I love those little glass terrariums, the Wardian cases. They are fantastically expensive to acquire now, although terrariums can be made from any sort of glass bowl or bottle. It must have been a great relief to some of those ladies to have something more substantial to turn their attention to than needlework. Even Beatrix Potter was a respected mycologist, which I blogged about awhile back. My hat is off to all the ladies who transcended the stereotype of the helpless female.

  2. Hi DD,

    Agreed.

    And I would love to learn more about botany myself. There are two gorgeous graveyards near me. In the warmer months I love walking through them. They’re filled with the most beautiful plants and flowers. Plus, there’s also the Botanical Garden here which is like a paradise.

  3. You always post about such interesting things, Tasha. This time period is fascinating to me: there was so much going on.

  4. I always wondered about the Victorian interest in botany (those little Wardian cases popped into my mind, too). It makes sense that this would be an interesting hobby for women of that era…and I can certainly understand the desire to find something less tedious than needlework to occupy my time 🙂

  5. Thank you so much, Amy! I’m always glad to hear that others find this stuff interesting, too. 🙂

  6. Hi Dominique,

    Agreed! I like knitting (find it very relaxing), but choosing to do any sort of needlework as a hobby is different than being forced to do it for hours on end, day in-day out your entire life, because it’s deemed one of the only “ladylike” pastimes.

    Tedious indeed!

  7. Interesting stuff, and good to see how women expanded their role within the scientific community as well as shaping the aesthetics of the era.

  8. Thank you, Ralfast! And of course, many men were also interested in natural history and made huge accomplishments in the field. But for the sake of the post, I decided to focus on the ladies.

  9. If I were a Victorian lady, I’d definitely have preferred growing a herbarium or pressing leaves to doing needlework (I’ll sew on buttons and darn socks, but no more).

    Also, I’m not sure if this is Victorian (do you know, Tasha?), but I love the “language of flowers” idea, the assigning of a meaning to each flower.

  10. Hey Marian,

    Now see, I like to knit, but forget sewing! Even the thought of threading a needle makes me shiver. 😉

    Regarding your question, I found this website: http://www.pioneerthinking.com/flowerlanguage.html

    It states that the Victorians used different flowers to express their feelings, but I’m not sure if the idea originated with them, or if they simply were the first to use them to such a regular degree.

  11. This was very helpful as I’m researching the Victorian era. Thanks! 🙂

  12. Hey Jenna,

    Glad the post was able to help you a bit. 🙂


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