What is Pteridomania?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Pteridomania was a craze which obsessed Victorian England at every level of society, from the Royal family to impoverished farm workers. The word is a portmanteau of the biological name for ferns and “mania” in the sense of a craze; in other words, pteridomania was a passion for ferns. It manifested in a huge range of ways, from going on collecting expeditions to gather specimens to including fern motifs on headstones, and numerous relics of pteridomania can be seen today in antique stores and in homes with a sizable collection of Victoriana.

Pteridomania was a craze in England during the Victorian period.
Pteridomania was a craze in England during the Victorian period.

Most people date the start of pteridomania to the 1830s, when Britons began to be obsessed with natural history. The opportunity to take a long ramble through the woods with the excuse of looking for and identifying ferns caught on, starting in the middle classes and rippling outwards. By the 1860s, pteridomania was at its peak, and it had petered out by the 1890s in favor of new obsessions.

At its most basic, pteridomania simply involved traveling to areas where ferns grew and documenting the species found there, sometimes taking samples. Some enthusiasts even managed to identify entirely new species. Others actively cultivated ferns in ferneries, greenhouses specifically designed for fern cultivation. The fernery spread well beyond the boundaries of Britain, as did pteridomania itself, with fern cultivation being practiced as far away as Australia.

Fern motifs also integrated themselves into Victorian design. Fern patterns appeared in fabric, embroidery, cast iron, stone, and cake decorations. Women wore gowns decorated with ferns, exchanged pressed ferns, painted ferns, and collected illustrations of ferns along with scientific books on ferns. Gates were embellished with cast iron ferns, as were product labels, carriages, and pretty much any surface imaginable.

One of the most particularly interesting things about pteridomania is that it occurred across class boundaries. Participating in the fern craze didn't require money or sophistication, only an interest in ferns and time to go out to look for them, and as a result, people of all ages, social statuses, and economic classes engaged in pteridomania across England. This egalitarian craze was especially astonishing when one considers the rigid social boundaries of Victorian society.

Today, objects from the Victorian era can fetch a high price, and many of these objects betray the rich history of pteridomania in Victorian society. Ferns are subtly embroidered on vintage gowns, carved into furnishings, and lacquered onto trays, carrying this craze well beyond its 19th century origins.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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