Cultivating the carboniferous: Coal as a botanical curiosity in victorian culture

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Coal had a ubiquitous presence in Victorian society. This article argues that its significance for Victorian society ranged far beyond its practical uses. Coal’s cultural meanings were connected closely with its natural history as a fossil of the tropical forests of the Carboniferous era, and hence as a relic of the deep past. Victorian fascination with coal’s origin resonated broadly from popular science to literature to discourses of domestic improvement. Accordingly, coal was not only affiliated with technological advances, but also possessed a natural aspect of profound impact on contemporary culture. As Victorians thought ferns dominated Carboniferous flora, they regarded modern fern species as the descendants of coal-producing plants and appreciated their role in British prosperity. Against this backdrop, this article engages with the fern craze of the mid-century and illuminates its obscure emergence and broad popularity.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)419-445
Number of pages27
JournalVictorian Studies
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1 Mar 2019

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Cultural Studies
  • History
  • Visual Arts and Performing Arts
  • Philosophy
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Literature and Literary Theory


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