Plants were likely grown indoors in containers in China more than 3000 years ago, but the houseplant craze is most closely associated with the Victorians who had a penchant for growing tropical plants with interesting foliage as well as the cultivating of ferns and palms as a sign of wealth and status. Growing plants indoors had many challenges including pollution caused by fumes from coal-burning fires and gas lights as well as dramatic temperature fluctuations and low light levels.
Today, a new generation of consumers is reviving interest in houseplants, especially those that are easy to care for and have exotic looking, colorful foliage. Spending more time indoors, younger consumers see houseplants as must-have décor that makes a bold statement. This nature-infused design aesthetic is pushing houseplant popularity to new heights and has inspired NYBG’s current social media campaign #plantlove
During the mid-nineteenth century, as rapid industrialization swept through Europe and the United States, populations sought residence in cities where there was an increase of employment opportunities and social mobility. People of all classes looked for ways to ease the reality of the overcrowded and polluted urban environment. Houseplants were introduced as a way to reconnect with nature for beauty, leisure and health. As the popularity of houseplants increased, new techniques, products and books tapped into the needs of the city gardener.
London: Taylor and Hessey, 1823
Library of Sarah Gildersleeve Fife
In 1823, Elizabeth Kent authored the first book to emphasize the care of living potted plants as opposed to cut flower arrangements for the new population of city dwellers.
Boston: J.E. Tilton, 1861
Gift of Dr. W. J. Robbins
The Parlor Gardener by Cornelia J. Randolph is the first American publication on houseplants. Although, this copy is dated 1861 it is believed to have been written before 1850. Written in two parts, The Garden in the Apartment and the Garden at the Window, it aimed to equip new upper class city dwellers with the skills to cultivate a garden indoors.
New York: Scribners, 1895
Given by Prof. N. L. Britton
Houseplant care books began to include chapters on decorating with houseplants as a way to brighten the dull city apartment. Varieties of flower stands, vases, cases and hangers were common plant accessories that hobbyists incorporated into their home as they became more available and more affordable.
The new practical window gardener: being practical directions for the cultivation of flowering and foliage plants in windows and glazed cases, and the arrangement of plants and flowers for the embellishment of the household/ John R. Mollison
Groombridge, Kent, 1877
Gift of Columbia University
John R. Mollison made houseplants accessible to the poorer urban communities in his publication The New Practical Window Gardner. Tending to houseplants was seen as a moral and respectable hobby for those who wished to avoid vice.
It is not exactly known when people started forcing flower bulbs in glass vases, but this probably dates back to around 1700. It became a popular way of having spring flowers indoors in the cold and dark winter period, especially in the northern and western parts of Europe. As expensive commodities, bulbs were mostly grown by the wealthy, however when the prices of bulbs fell, the general public could afford to force them at home and bulb vases were produced in many shapes and styles throughout the nineteenth century.
Hyacinth, narcissus, crocus, and amaryllis bulbs were most fashionable; being grown on water in specially designed vases adapted for their sizes. In the last decades of the twentieth century, the indoor forcing of bulbs began to decline, largely due to the availability of ready-to-flower planted pots, the overwhelming diversity of imported flowers and plants on the market, and the lack of a cool location in homes and apartments.
New York, Hearst Books, 1994
This twentieth century guide provides suggestions for bulbs to force indoors for each month of the year offering a year round flower garden of houseplants with imaginative ways to display them.
Harlem: N. Beets, 1773
Traylen gift, 1973
In 1752, the famous bulb grower Voorhelm, from Haarlem, Holland, published Traité sur la Jacinthe illustrating the technique of a hyacinth being forced on water. This publication was especially intended for French customers to increase knowledge of the hyacinth for use in the garden and home. Voorhelm’s grandfather is credited with having developed the double hyacinth.
Paris, Vilmorin-Andrieux, 1911
This compilation of the illustrations used in the nursery catalogs of the French firm Vilmorin-Andrieux reflects the tastes of the late nineteenth century parlor gardener and demonstrates the great variety of vases available for forcing bulbs.
As increasing urbanization led to apartment dwellers desiring to grow plants indoors so too did suburban home owners wish to decorate with houseplants. A number of manuals began to appear after World War I which were written with the affluent suburbanite in mind. Many of these works featured ideas for incorporating houseplants into various rooms and indoor arrangements.
Nurseries began to cater to the growing interest in houseplants by featuring them in their catalogs. Savvy marketers realized the valuable opportunity which existed for their products which developed with the creation of the suburban shopping center and eventually nurseries partnered with grocery stores to offer consumers the opportunity to easily purchase a wide variety of houseplants and to promote them for gift giving.
Boston: Breck’s, 1928
The renowned seedsman Grant Thorburn (1773-1863) of New York began selling plants in painted pots in the early nineteenth century to increase their appeal as decorative objects and by 1875, Pennsylvania nurserymen Dingee & Conard began to offer ‘suitable house plants’ in their fall catalogs. In 1923, Breck’s nursery created a department in their catalog specifically for houseplant enthusiasts.
New York: A.T. De La Mare, 1917
Gift of M. W. Wallace, 1949
Palmer’s guide is the outgrowth of a popular lecture he had given at the Horticulture Hall in Boston on houseplants one year earlier. Interestingly, he opens with a chapter entitled “Plants as living, feeling things”.
Zaandam: Verkade's Fabrieken, 1928
By exchange for a set of Mycologia, 1937
Beginning in 1903 in the Netherlands, a series of albums appeared whereby the illustrations could be collected and pasted inside. The illustrations were in the form of stamps which were given out with purchases at certain stores. This particular album is themed on house plants.
Low interest mortgages offered to soldiers under the G.I. Bill after World War II sparked a mass migration out of cities and into the suburbs. Suburbanization offered populations amenities that were not possible in the city. Larger homes with more rooms, windows and outdoor space for entertaining and relaxing offered more possibilities for houseplants. Philodendron and snake plants were popular choices for decorating these new modern spaces.
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1965
Gift of Marlon Elbert
“Today your home offers a variety of environmental conditions suitable for many types of plants, and such devices as humidifiers, florescent lighting and heating cables can be used to modify a room or a corner for horticultural purposes.”
Indoor Garden Plan: Garden for North Window
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1946
Given in loving memory of Martin D. Bernstein
Economic mobility after World War II sparked a migration out of the cities and into the suburbs. Suburbanization offered populations amenities that were not possible in the city. As people moved from apartments to houses, houseplants went along with them. Books during this time offered ideas on how to incorporate plants into various rooms and suggested which plants to buy.
Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1979
“Many of us – single people, working couples, harried mothers, college students, people who travel frequently, anyone whose daily living patterns leave precious little time for indoor gardening – would enjoy the beauty and companionship of bright green, and flowering plants, especially through the drab winter months.”
Lomdon: Kyle Books, 2017
Today, the assortment of available plants for growing indoors has never been greater, and conditions more favorable. Scientific evidence supports the fact that houseplants reduce atmospheric pollution, including allergy-irritating dust, help absorb noise pollution and reduce blood pressure and stress levels.
This exhibit was created by Samantha D'Acunto, Susan Fraser and Stephen Sinon with editorial contributions from Laura McKinney. Kelsey Miller worked to design and installation of this display in the LuEsther T. Mertz Library.
Images courtesy of Marlon Co.
Thank you to everyone who worked on this exhibit.