Take a walk down the main street of any town built a 100 years or more ago, and you will find evidence of the 19th century fascination for houseplants. Horticultural hobbies were such a natural part of Victorian life that the architecture of the times reflected the prevailing plant-related tendencies.
Look at the sun porches that bulge off the sides of so many Victorian homes or consider the popular recessed bay windows that inhabit many other 19th-centruy homes. It was all part of a plan to invite nature indoors. The Victorians had fallen so madly in love with nature that they could scarcely survive the winter without a friendly plant or two offering their beauty to the resident family.
The Victorian enthusiasm for houseplants can be easily explained. After all, houseplants were definitely a new invention. Before the 1830's, typical colonial homes were too dark and cold for plants to thrive indoors. That situation changed abruptly when the Age of Technology arrived, bringing a number of innovations. Work changed, life changed, and the home changed. Windows were larger with the manufacture of less expensive and better quality glass. Sunlight streamed in. Gradually, warm stoves replaced open fires, making the home more comfortable for people, pets and plants.
At the same time, lifestyles were changing. With more advance transportation systems, the population gravitated away from farms and rural homes and into the cities. People no longer worked outdoors from dawn until dark. They enjoyed leisure hours and filled free time with more natural pursuits. They walked in the parks, pressed flowers, and went on picnics. Although the people of the Victorian era never missed the drudgery of farm life, they sorely missed nature.
Meanwhile, in Europe, the Age of Technology allowed extensive plant exploration. Rarities, successfully collected from far-off jungles, were introduced into cultivation and eventually sold to the public through flourishing mail-order greenhouses. By the turn of the century, nursery catalogs abounded, and greenhouses packed up and mailed these tropical rarities to any small town in the country. The many new ladies' magazines that flooded the market awakened the lady of the house to the study of botany and growing techniques.
Houseplants began to rise in popularity, but it was more than just "fashion" that propelled them forward. Houseplants became a moral issue. While the Age of Technology was changing lives and life-styles at an alarming pace, preachers and writers insisted that the beauty of nature could effectively lead people toward moral goodness. Plants provided this easy path toward salvation.
With so much positive support, houseplants had little problem gaining entry into the home. The Victorians adopted nature into the heart of the family and cherished it all year. In a "home of taste," houseplants were paramount.
The Victorians had an astounding repertoire of plants at their disposal. Most of our modern houseplants can be traced back to the Victorian era, when plant exploration was at its height and nurseries carried numerous botanicals for their eager customers.
Another element that helped to increase the popularity of houseplants was regardless of their size, most Victorian homes featured bay windows, and this helped to fuel the interest in growing plants indoors. The 19th century innovation was the design of Alexander Jackson Davis, a New York architect. The popularity of his enhanced windows was that they provided an ideal climate with balanced light, and moderated temperatures. Because of this, a bay window was perfect for many popular Victorian plants. In addition, the window area was generally more humid than the body of the room allowing tropical plants to thrive as well.
Some of the favorite houseplants that Victorians enjoyed were: Abutilon, Jasmine, Fuchsias, Citrus, Heliotropes, Sword ferns, Maidenhair ferns, Holly ferns, Boston fern, Palms, and Aspidistra.
The thing that is so interesting is that here we are, several decades later, and the whole Victorian era is still very much with us. If you think about it, there is nothing more Victorian than a Boston fern sitting in a corner on a stand in a sunroom, or gracing a bay window. A nice image to hang onto and cherish, and one that can be recreated as simply as putting a parlor palm in a corner of one of your rooms where you live.