“What did you think of them?” the nice young woman at the gift shop cash register asked when I came out of Harvard’s famous glass flower exhibit at the Peabody Museum.
I had gone into the museum on a whim. Now that I had taken up walking, I thought maybe this would be a good place to get in some easy mileage. I joined up. Of course, I’d heard of the glass flowers. For one thing we had a neighbor who lived around the corner from us on Oxford Street. She lived in a very unusual house. It was set well back from the street bracketed by two of the more typical wood frame houses in the neighborhood. The house was one mile west of the Peabody on the same street. An easy trek from door to door.
Unlike its neighbors the house was all brick and mortar. Spread sideways, it was two stories high with two large bays on the ground floor. One was used as a garage and the other a workshop. Our friend was a weaver and her loom was in the second bay. She has moved now. I don’t know the new owners or what use they’ve made of the workshop bay.
|Original woodworker shop where glass flower cabinets were built.|
There was something odd about the house. It hadn’t always been a private residence. The block and tackle jutting out from the roof was the giveaway. Over dinner I asked our hostess about the history. She said that it was originally a woodworking shop. In fact this was where the cabinets that held the glass flowers at Harvard’s Peabody Museum had been manufactured. She said we had to see the exhibit, if only for the cabinets. And now several years later I had somehow managed to find the time and the inclination.
Professor George Goodale originally commissioned the flowers as a teaching aid in his botany class. Between 1887 and 1936 Leopold Blaschka and his son, Rudolph fashioned them to an extraordinary degree of accuracy. They were everything a botany professor could want. They were life-size, accurate to a fare-the-well, and best of all, they never perished.
They have become something of a celebrity item. Marianne Moore, in her poem Silence, wrote of them:
My father used to say,
“Superior people never make long visits,
have to be shown Longfellow's grave,
or the glass flowers at Harvard.”
Guidebooks tout them as one of the important “sights” of any Boston visit. The duck tour would, I’m sure, stop there if it could get up the steps.
“Well,” repeated the nice young woman at the gift shop, “What did you think of them?”
|Glass cabinets made at Oxford Street Woodworking Shop|
When I entered the rooms where the flowers were displayed, it is perhaps understandable that my eyes had fallen first on the cabinets. They were splendid. The wood shone as only wood polished for a hundred years can.
Then came the flowers. I traveled the room twice. I needed absolutely to be certain.
By this time the young woman was growing impatient. I hadn’t answered her question. She decided to answer it herself.
“They are incredible, aren’t they? It is amazing the level of detail the Blaschkas managed to mold in glass, don’t you think?”
What I thought was that the Blaschka flowers were like vodka martinis. They are an acquired taste.
“It is a remarkable achievement,” I mustered and then—I don’t know. It just slipped out—“Amazing how they’ve managed to make them look just like plastic.”
|Coelacanth, Latimeria chalumnae|
I took advantage of her good humor to ask, “Can you tell me how to find the coelacanth?”