Try as you might; you just can’t beat a classic.
If you’re looking for a one-of-a-kind vintage piece or an antique wonder with a story to tell, this is the post for you.
I’ll be taking you through some stunning (and some crazy) historical terrarium trends from retro to Victorian and show you where you can find some of these original pieces for sale.
Let’s get this show on the road!
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- 1 | Saarinen Space-Age Terrarium
- 2 | Demijohn Bottle Garden
- 3 | Vintage Geometric Terrarium
- 4 | Vintage Bottle Terrarium
- 5 | Ottoman Terrarium
- 6 | Vintage Fishbowl & Stand
- 7 | Old-Style Wardian Case
- 8 | Stained Glass Wardian Case
- 9 | Oldest Wardian Case
9 Antique & Vintage Terrariums for Sale
To start us all off on the same page, let me clarify the difference between vintage and antique.
Anything created 20-99 years ago is vintage, and anything made 100+ years ago is antique.
Since terrariums were invented in 1829, we only have roughly 200 years of terrarium goodness to work with, so I’m including everything in one big, old article.
We’ll be going on a loosely chronological journey today, starting with quirky retro trends, moving through mid-century to early 20th-century styles, and finally, Victorian antiques.
Glass terrariums have gone through some seriously wild phases, so let’s take a look.
1 | Saarinen Space-Age Terrarium
Kicking things off with the epitome of 60s and 70s vintage, we have space-age terrariums.
Are these to everyone’s taste? Ahem, no. But honestly, the more I looked into the history and context, the more I liked it.
Eero Saarinen was an iconic designer and architect known for (amongst other things) creating tulip-based furniture in the 50s. Instead of having several legs on a piece of furniture, it would have one central, curved base.
It became wildly popular and is still featured in lots of modern furniture.
Of course, it didn’t take long for that design to influence terrarium containers, and plenty of 70s pieces are still being resold today.
2 | Demijohn Bottle Garden
Big, beautiful demijohns and carboys were all the rage when terrariums went through their “bottle garden” phase.
When I say it was popular, I mean it was seriously popular.
The glassware used back then was often older too. Even today, you can find pieces for sale from a variety of time periods.
If you really want to keep it vintage, try planting it with Tradescantia.
Every time we get an email from someone who has a still-living terrarium from back in the day, it’s almost always populated with Trad species!
3 | Vintage Geometric Terrarium
If you thought that geometric terrariums were a hot new trend – think again!
You can get your hands on some gorgeous vintage geometric pieces from the 60s and 70s.
One thing to note about old – and even new – geometric terrariums is that they might not be waterproof.
So if you’re planning on building a terrarium in your glassware, I recommend thoroughly testing before you begin and, if need be, going in with some silicone caulk.
4 | Vintage Bottle Terrarium
Terrariums have seen so many fabulous moments across the decades, but you needn’t limit your search to a specific trend.
A budget-friendly way to get your vintage terrarium fix is by picking up a vintage bottle.
Far more options are available and at a much more approachable price tag.
Pretty much any clear glass bottle will do the trick, so you can choose from anything from a 1940s apothecary jar to a 1970s Pepsi bottle.
👉 Shop vintage bottles on Etsy.
👉 Read more: How to Make a Bottle Garden (Best Plants & Ideas)
5 | Ottoman Terrarium
This one is a bit wild… But it turns out, in the 50s and 60s, people were really into transparent inflatable ottomans with faux botanical arrangements inside.
Don’t believe me? Don’t worry; I’ve come with proof.
Okay. The plants and flowers aren’t living, so it’s not technically a terrarium, but does it deserve a place on a vintage terrarium list? Absolutely.
And apparently, they’re rare and highly sought after, so if you see one you like, snap it up!
6 | Vintage Fishbowl & Stand
Fishbowls are a fantastic choice if you want to physically plant a terrarium in your vintage glassware.
These pieces functionally hold up extremely well.
Since fishkeeping has been a thing for quite some time, there are plenty of different styles from different periods.
Many older pieces come with stands.
Of course, for a closed terrarium build, you’ll need a lid to seal the humidity in there, but it’s easily done – you can easily snap up a custom-cut faux-glass acrylic lid for cheap.
7 | Old-Style Wardian Case
This piece isn’t the oldest on our list today, but I’d consider it the oldest in style.
The first incarnation of terrariums was entirely functional. They revolutionized agriculture by allowing for the mass transportation of living plants across the globe, which previously couldn’t have been done.
So the goal wasn’t for a terrarium to look fabulous, as it is today; the only goal back then was to trap humidity and warmth and allow light to get in.
This piece is made with bamboo and acrylic, not glass, so it must have been made after 1928 when acrylic was invented.
This makes it technically vintage, not antique, but in terms of shape and style, it’s as close as I’ve seen to what the first terrariums would have looked like.
👉 Read more: A Short History of Terrariums – The Happy Botanical Accident
8 | Stained Glass Wardian Case
As we now know, in the beginning, terrariums had a solely functional purpose, but naturally, new plants being brought to Victorian Britain sparked a great houseplant craze amongst the upper class.
Ferns and Orchids were especially popular, and both require high humidity levels; terrariums soon became an aesthetic way to keep your prize plants healthy and display them proudly in the home.
Enter gorgeous stained glass Wardian cases (as terrariums were known back then).
Pieces like this mark such a fabulous moment in time, and I’d love to own one one day.
👉 Read more: A Modern Classic: The Best Wardian Cases for Sale (Right Now)
9 | Oldest Wardian Case
Now, the one we’ve all been waiting for – the pièce de résistance.
Coming at you straight from the 1860s, serving Victorian Britain realness, we have an iron and glass, 18-inch by 18-inch Wardian case.
I wish we had more information about its origins, but understandably with such an old piece, there isn’t much to go on.
The enigmatic journey it’s taken through the years to arrive here today will have to be left to the imagination.
A Few Tips on Buying
As you might have noticed, the price of pieces varies significantly. You’d expect this, of course, to reflect the differences in age, rarity, and condition.
But I do think it’s worth noting that, at times, the world of vintage and antiques is a bit of a wild west.
Are there reputable sellers and genuine items out there? Of course!
But as with every industry, inevitably, there will be one or two that don’t have the highest standards.
Believe me; I see plenty of people advise putting succulents and cacti in a closed terrarium (a big horticultural no-no).
So to make sure what you’re getting is legit and at a fair price:
- Do some research on the item before you click buy. Do the materials and style fit the time period stated?
- If you have any questions – ask! Sellers will be happy to talk to you about how they came across the piece and any other details they know.
- Trust your gut. If it’s too good to be true, it probably is.
That’s All, Folks
I had so much fun with this article. I thought I knew all there was to know about the history of terrariums, but it’s been great to see that some wacky retro trends had escaped me.
What’s your favorite terrarium moment? Share it in the comments!
4 thoughts on “Antique & Vintage Terrariums: Original Pieces & Retro Trends”
I have a Saarinen terrarium, (we called it a tulip terrarium, though it could be a mini eco system too) it’s dead at the moment in my storage container and was last used +1 decade ago. I grew green onions, basil and such from an edible garden in it, year round indoors here in Calgary AB Canada (with a south facing window). My kids tell me it should be brought back to life, and I just checked eBay’s pricing, one in Maryland is for sale at +$500 US… I think I paid about $10 Canadian, or $7 in real dollars lol… I’ve seen similar in glass, sitting on hairpin legs with a steel hoop welded to support it. I think I’ll look into having this made, it looked crazy cool. scrapandsalvage.wordpress had this as a “water terrarium”
Oh wow Mark, you should absolutely plant it again! I bet you never thought it could be worth that one day when you bought it!
I remember my mother having two of the space age 1970s terrariums. They had white base and big round plastic globe. I enjoyed watching it all grow. I am trying to find the same terrarium now and it’s very difficult. When I do find one is too costly for my income.
They’re so cool. I’d love one too but sadly they are super super expensive these days! I recommend having a look at local thrift/antique stores if possible – might be cheaper than online.