Desperate for green, and while I am waiting for my own ferns to pop out of the ground, I have been perusing various botanical books, several of which led me to some spectacular plates published right here in Salem in the later nineteenth century: Daniel Cady Eaton’s The Ferns of North America: Colored Figures and Descriptions, with Synonomy and Geographical Distribution of the Ferns (Including Ophioglossaceae) of the United States of America and the British North American Possessions (Salem, MA: S.E. Cassino, 1877-80) contains 81 beautiful lithographs hand-colored by James H. Emerton and C. E. Faxon. Another Salem surprise; I’m familiar with Cassino, whose diverse publications included everything from Black Cat Magazine to Bleak House, but this Eaton book is really spectacular.
I suppose I shouldn’t be that surprised: Cassino was trained as a naturalist before he turned to publishing, and seems to have been part of a New England circle surrounding the eminent Harvard naturalist Asa Gray which included Eaton and also John Robinson, head of the Botany Department at the (then) Peabody Academy of Science, whose somewhat less scholarly Ferns in Their Homes and Ours was also published by Cassino during this same time: the illustrations in Robinson’s book are less detailed and naturalistic (and certainly expensive) than those in Eaton’s, but still charming. Robinson designed the garden of the Ropes Mansion on Essex Street and his own large garden on Summer, right around the corner from my own house. While the former is still there, the latter is unfortunately buried under a parking lot. The Robinson house is still standing, however, and the garden plans are in the Library of Congress: they detail several fern borders similar to the illustration below.
How the Victorians loved their ferns, inside and out! The demand for books about ferns seems to be insatiable in the pre-1914 period, and the production of jardinières impressive. In the Victorian language of flowers, ferns were assigned mystical meanings, but also represented shelter, which might explain some of their interior attraction.
Plates from Shirley Hibberd’s Rustic Adornments for Homes of Taste (1870); another recent find: Frances Theodora Parsons’ How to Know the Ferns (1902) with an amazing cover by esteemed binding designer Margaret Nielson Armstrong.