A Sneak Peek into This Victorian Life
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Barnes & Noble
... For our tenth wedding anniversary (traditionally the tin anniversary in the way that the twenty-fifth is silver and the fiftieth gold) Gabriel gave me a gift which tied into the scientific aspects of the nineteenth-century in a most remarkable way...
“It’s called a vasculum," Gabriel explained as I cocked an eyebrow quizzically at the item, trying to puzzle it out. It was thirteen inches in its longest dimension and had slightly curved ends that bulged a little less than half an inch beyond this. Its small side was a narrow oval. My sewing tape, stretched around the outside of this oval, would measure sixteen inches in circumference, but a hard ruler would only measure its diameter as four inches in one direction, six in the other. It was shorter than a poster tube, but at the same time much broader than one.
As I inspected the case Gabriel grinned broadly, obviously delighted and barely able to hold in the answer to the riddle.
"Vasculum," I quietly repeated the word he had used, trying to parse it out. It sounds like vascular... I pondered "Doesn't it have something to do with 'nourishing,' in Latin?"
I would later learn that I had been stretching the connection in the wrong direction. "Vasculum" and "vascular" are indeed related, but linguistically speaking, I had mistaken the branch for the root. Vasculum is Latin for "vessel," and is, in fact, the parent word from which English derives vascular—since the vascular systems of animals and plants are made up of vessels which carry blood and other fluids.
Gabriel, who was grinning broadly, finally couldn't keep the puzzle's answer to himself any more. "It's a specimen collecting case!" He said proudly.
He explained that vasculums originated in the 1700's as a way for scientists to collect and carry specimens while doing fieldwork. (Fans of the 2003 movie Master and Commander might remember seeing an eighteenth-century vasculum carried by the ship's doctor in the scene where he is collecting plants and animals in the Galapagos Islands. Gabriel bought my vasculum from the same tinsmith who made the prop for the movie.) By the nineteenth-century their popularity had grown far beyond the realm of professional science and vasculums were a popular accessory for amateurs (and even children) to use for collecting wildflowers and other items of scientific interest. The nineteenth-century had a particular fad for Pteridomania or "fern fever." It was very fashionable to collect live ferns from forested areas, carry them home in a vasculum with a damp cloth, moss, or moist bit of cotton against the roots, and re-plant the botanical curiosity in one's home garden or as a potted parlor specimen. The same was done with wildflowers, and orchids were especially sought-after.
Personally, I've never been able to cosset any outdoor plant sufficiently to accommodate its survival indoors. The difference in temperature and humidity was always too much any time I tried it—even with a plant as stalwart as a dandelion. Fashions, however, seldom bear a very strong relationship to simplicity. If any readers do feel like trying their luck, they should be careful of where they gather specimens: Regulations about digging things up on federal land are much stricter than they used to be. At the end of the nineteenth-century legal authorities were already starting to crack down on such things in England: In Devon in 1896 two "fern stealers" were sentenced to four and six weeks' hard labor.
On my tin wedding anniversary, I smiled at the pretty, shining vasculum my husband had given me. "I thought you could use it for picking berries," Gabriel told me.
...The vasculum would prove to be a remarkably useful item, even for quotidian activities that don't involve scientific specimens. For example, it makes an excellent purse. The metal structure is excellent protection for any material put inside it, which makes it quite useful for transporting small posters or fragile items. Even nineteenth-century fern hunters used to carry their sandwiches in their vasculums. And when it comes to outdoor activities, the lovely tin case really comes into its own...