Collecting and Collections Part II: Pteridomania strikes Special Collections
In the second part of the Collecting and Collections blog series, our Manuscripts Archivist takes a look at the trend of fern collecting, pteridomania.
It may be conceded that not all the elegancies of Potichimanie, Diaphany, Knitting, Netting and Crochet, ever offered such pleasant employment to the light fingers of the fair sex as a few cases of Ferns, and no amateur gardener ever found a fairer field for his enterprise than a Fern-bank, or a collection of Ferns in pots.”
I had not heard of Pteridomania until I innocently embarked on a collecting blog post featuring the recently acquired fern albums of Mrs Phoebe Jaffrey, not realising I would be stepping into the murky and competitive waters of a full-blown Victorian collecting craze.
Pteridomania, a term coined caustically by Charles Kingsley whose sister suffered from it, swept Britain from the 1830s to the end of the century. It means the craze for collecting fern species, taking these beautiful and diverse plants from the wild either to grow them in ferneries or glass cases, or to dry and mount species in albums for posterity. Fern hunting expeditions went out to all parts of Britain, vying with each other to find the rarest species or the densest grove. It was particularly popular in the Highlands of Scotland, Wales and the West Country where the damper climate, cleaner air and sparse population provided a perfect natural habitat for ferns. Collecting spread at the same time that the railways opened up these remoter parts of Britain, allowing native species to be tamed into ferneries and conservatories. For those who couldn’t organise their own collecting trips, specialist dealers and fern nurseries sprung up to supply demand, including exotic species from abroad.
The mania also extended to putting fern designs on everything from wooden boxes, textiles, ceramics, glass, cast iron work, even the humble custard cream biscuit. I had never considered the pattern on a custard cream before so I had to go and buy some to see if this was really true. And it is!
It all started for me with three volumes of cut and dried ferns from the Darjeeling area of West Bengal, India, pasted into large scrapbooks. These were prepared and given as gifts or sold, by Mrs Jaffrey, the third wife of Andrew Thomas Jaffrey. He was the curator of the Lloyd Botanic Gardens in Darjeeling, 1878-1885, and author of Hints to the Amateur Gardeners of Southern India (1855-1860).
During this period Mrs Jaffrey created many sets of albums from the abundantly available specimens of local ferns. These were carefully labelled with Genus, Species and Patria, suggesting she was as knowledgeable as her husband about plants. Many ended up in collections back home in Britain as the craze for native ferns had extended to those abroad too.
Soon I was feverishly rifling through our collections for ferns and fern shaped things. I found the exotic New Zealand ferns of Robert Alexander Robertson, professor of botany here (ms37833).
There’s the creative use of ferns by the McIntosh sisters, inveterate keepers of scrapbooks but also educated naturalists, using real ferns in collage and also fern paper cutouts in these cards:
This hobby appealed to all social classes and both sexes but perhaps could be seen as particularly appropriate for middle-class women, often to be found collecting specimens from nature, or ephemera, or postcards, or signatures and so on. It was a pleasant, harmless hobby for these women who were denied the workplace, their role in the household taken by servants, giving them the free time to pursue such interests. It was seen as safe, healthy, outdoorsy and moral, though ferneries also became places for trysts and fern-hunting expeditions or outings were usually mixed gender, no doubt adding to their popularity. This interest in natural history could also encompass collections of flowers, seaweed, algae, moss, fungi, and their natural corollary, artistic endeavour to reproduce what had been found in nature on paper, needing training and skills of observation.
Some female collectors were more rigorously scientific, often when the woman was wife or mother of a naturalist, as with the McIntosh sisters, supporting their marine biologist brother William. Mrs Jaffrey’s volumes fit into this niche. Such amateur collectors could engage with and make a contribution to science as botanists or field naturalists in a way which was deemed suitable to their station and less likely to arouse suspicion than an external pursuit of scientific knowledge.
Our extensive collection of books on fern taxonomy and on fern collecting also reflects the great enthusiasm for this hobby and the insatiable need for knowledge by the amateur collector. In fact in The Fern Garden, How to make, Keep and Enjoy it, or Fern Culture made easy, by James Shirley Hibberd (1870), he complains about all the bad books on ferns by people with a week’s experience, so confusing to the beginner. “Almost everyone has written a book on ferns, it having become the fashion to consider a knowledge of the subject rather a disqualification than otherwise.” He offers his 25 years of expertise, after prompting by his fern-loving friends, to help with creating fern gardens or a Wardian case. Ferns were hard to cultivate but it had been discovered by Nathaniel Ward that they would thrive in a sealed glass case, which provided high humidity, warmth and protection from the urban air pollution of coal fires and industrial processes.
Other books, many written by women, describe the study and cultivation of plants, what to take with you on a collecting expedition and how to recognise the many diverse species. Some are more scientific, whilst others appreciated ferns as ‘beautiful, ornamental and attractive’ without getting into technicalities.
Our library includes A Pocket Guide to British Ferns by Marian S Ridley (1881), Choice British Ferns by Charles Druery , History of British Ferns by Edward Newman (1840), A Fern Book for Everybody by MC Cooke . Thomas Moore’s British Ferns, was already in a 3rd edition by 1857.
British Ferns with Illustrations (1860) was edited by Mrs Lankester, a botanist in her own right, and wife and mother of naturalists. However in the forward the publisher admits that the first edition of 1854 was seen as too scientific, and in an effort to be more popular it had been edited (and by implication dumbed down) by a lady. This book was sold with Robert Hardwicke’s Fern Collector’s Album, with descriptions facing a blank page for you to insert your own dried specimens.
The craze inspired some dubious poetry, such as this effort:
Thy place is not where art exults to raise the tended flower,
By terraced walk, or deck’d parterre, or fenced and shelter’d bower;
Nor where the straightly-levelled walks, of tangled boughs between,
The sunbeam lights the velvet sward, and streams through alleys green.
Thy dwelling is the desert heath, the wood, the haunted dell,
And where the wild deer stoops to drink, beside the crystal well;
And by the lake with trembling stars bestud, when earth is still,
And midnight’s melancholy pomp is on the distant hill.”
Anonymous author in British Ferns and Mosses, p.37
Also the delightfully named Fanny Fern (real name Sara Willis) who took up the theme for her collections of children’s stories, Fern Leaves from Fanny’s Portfolio (1853) and Little Ferns for Fanny’s Little Friends (1856).
The poetry may seem criminal enough (can we forgive “Where the rushing stream is longest, There the Lady-fern grows strongest”?) but the collecting mania led to the near extinction of some fern species in Britain, through unscrupulous dealers stripping entire habitats of their flora. The plunder was sold on to inexperienced fern growers and often ended in the plant’s speedy death in unsuitable conditions in Victorian houses and gardens. The destruction of delicately balanced ecosystems made it all the harder for the species to recover. Concern over habitat degradation and loss of biodiversity, so topical now, led to the introduction of some of the earliest legislation to protect wild plants and their environment from 1902. By then the craze was already ebbing away, seen as old fashioned and thoroughly Victorian, so last century. But it lives on in our store rooms!