Owners of Victorian houses find that nothing makes the cheerlessness of the average winter more bearable than a quaint well-stocked little conservatory that is easily accessible from one of the principal rooms of the residence, say the library or dining room.
Like everything else, the modern greenhouse is a product of evolution. It began in the seventeenth century under the form of glazed frames set in front of a wall on which fruit trees were trained to keep the sun's light and heat within. Then it became a room with windows for the storage of plants in winter like the orangeries at Versailles and elsewhere. Gradually the windows grew larger, but even up to the beginning of the nineteenth century a roof was considered necessary, as it was believed that glass overhead would allow the artificial heat within to escape.
As soon as it was discovered that the roof could be glazed as well as the sides without undue loss of heat, the Victorian greenhouse came into being as the supports diminished to the minimum required to support the glass and a steel frame with evenly bent panes of glass replacing the old-fashioned eaves.
The greenhouse was a utilitarian contrivance for the raising of plants to be used elsewhere. Its first use was usually the raising of early vegetables. Next came the growing of decorative plants for the house. Next the raising of specialized crops, perhaps roses, carnations, cyclamens, chrysanthemums, and so on, which required different temperatures and seasons of growth, so that a single greenhouse of, say, 25 feet by 75 feet was often divided into several compartments in which the different conditions would be obtained.
The Victorian greenhouse was divided into two general classes: the conservatory and the others. The conservatory, whether a part of the house or not, was a place for the care and housing of exotic plants too sensitive to endure the rigors of climate. These plants were kept in the conservatory during their period of growth of foliage or flower, and when they faded were replaced by others. The Victorian conservatory was supplied with relays of plants either by the florist, or from another greenhouse on the property.
The conservatory was also modified as a place to entertain, inviting friends for afternoon tea to marvel at the display of exotic plants and became an opportunity for Victorian’s to show their wealth. The conservatory would be decorated with elaborate iron furniture and colorful rugs. Due to the wealth of natural light, the conservatory became a place to carry out popular Victorian crafts and interests, such as painting or embroidery.
The Victorian house conservatory was often heated by a coal stove, but the temperature was more or less uneven. The best results were to be attained when the conservatory was heated by steam or hot water, piped in by iron pipes, which went together with threads. For a small conservatory, hot water was usually preferable to steam, since it was less likely to fluctuate. For large Victorian greenhouses, however, the steam was usually the better.
In 19th century America the word “greenhouse” was applied to all kinds of glasshouses in which plants were grown, including the conservatory. Other types of glasshouses were the stove or hothouse, in which plants were grown in a high temperature; the propagating pit, in which the multiplication of plants was carried forward; and the houses which have various temperatures, as cold, cool and intermediate.
The smaller the glasshouse the more difficult it was to manage, because it was likely to be more variable in temperature, moisture and other conditions. This was particularly true if the greenhouse was a small lean-to against the south side of a dwelling house, for it became very hot at midday and comparatively cold at night.