Antique & Vintage Terrariums: Original Pieces & Retro Trends

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!

Antique and Vintage Terrariums

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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.

Space age terrarium with white tulip base
Have you ever seen something that screams retro quite like this atomic Saarinen-style terrarium? (Image credit: DelightfullyDutch on Etsy).

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. 

White table and chairs set with tulip bases and blue cushions
You can see the tulip base in this original set. (Image credit: atomicthreshold on Etsy). 

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.

Graph showing a sharp increase in the use of the term bottle garden in literature
The number of literary mentions of the term “bottle garden” soared in the 60s and reached an impressive peak in 75.

The glassware used back then was often older too. Even today, you can find pieces for sale from a variety of time periods.

Workshop shelf with four large green demijohn bottles on
I love these 1940s pieces from Rogerappleyard – they’re gorgeous. (Image credit: Rogerappleyard on Etsy). 

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.

Vintage geometric terrarium next to a tape measure showing around 8 inches in height
This would make a great open terrarium. It even has a flat side and two metal loops for wall mounting. (Image credit: HMJewelryandVintage on Etsy).
Hexagonal small geometric terrarium with lid
And this would be perfect for a mini closed moss terrarium. (Image credit: HMJewelryandVintage on Etsy).

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.

Tall vintage glass bottle with vertical ridges running down on kitchen counter.
I like this quirky, ridged 90s piece by Sell4College. Though a 90s baby, I was horrified to hear something from then be called vintage. (Image credit: Sell4College on Etsy).

👉 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.

Transparent vintage circular ottoman with brown top and faux plants and flowers inside
Here she is! This one is in incredibly good nick. Typically the plastic gets stained and yellows with age, but this has stood the test of time. (Image credit: RavishingRetro on Etsy). 

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.

Clear glass fishbowl with floral design on the side in pink, grey, and brown
This 70s fishbowl is such a lovely find. I love the floral detail and colors. (Image credit: HouseOfGoldCo on Etsy). 

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.

Black cast iron stand with rectangular base at bottom and two prongs at top holding a plain glass fish bowl
This stand – dated around 1920-1940 – was found rusted but has been lovingly restored to its former glory. (Image credit: KimsKreations17 on Etsy).

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.

Old fashioned bamboo terrarium with triangular clear roof and latch
This cuboid + triangular prism shape was perfect for transportation. Cases could be tightly packed against one another on ships. (Image credit: MadHouseOldies on Etsy). 

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). 

Wardian case terrarium with some clear glass panels, some blue and red, and a wooden base
The craftsmanship in this piece is so beautiful; I love the cobalt blue. (Image credit: PrettyOddAntique on Etsy).

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. 

Large white paneled square terrarium with clouded glass and lid sitting on top
You can see the removable lid, showing how it would have been planted back then. (Image credit: holycowcottage on Etsy).

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!

About The Author

2 thoughts on “Antique & Vintage Terrariums: Original Pieces & Retro Trends”

  1. 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”
    Cheers!

    1. 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!

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