The Victorians played a pivotal role in the development of the glass conservatory as we know it today. Influenced and endeared by the glorious glasshouses built for lords and the wealthy, glazers and engineers set out to create lightweight glasshouses on a much smaller scale for townhouses and regular property.
As manufacturing output picked up the pace during the Industrial Revolution, the price of iron and steel fell considerably. With these materials being the ideal material to frame glass cheaply this opened up the opportunity for glazers to develop their product.
The term ‘conservatory’ was first coined in Victorian times to refer to any outdoor structure used to house exotic plants. However, over time the term ‘greenhouse’ became the norm for that and ‘conservatory’ to describe a small glazed property extension. ‘Glasshouse’ is still the term used to describe larger glass structures.
During Victorian times, conservatories remained a luxury for the wealthy. Even the middle classes would have struggled to afford such extravagance. And extravagant these extensions were, as the conservatory at Chatsworth House shows.
Built between 1836 and 1841, the conservatory at Chatsworth house covered three quarters of an acre. Its designer, Sir Joseph Paxton, would go on to design and build the glorious Crystal Palace in London. Covering 19 acres, the Crystal Palace required 293,635 panes of glass and more than 4,000 tons of iron. It was by far and away the greatest glasshouse ever built and the finest of Sir Paxton’s work.
On a smaller scale, the upper-middle classes in London would have conservatories built in the gardens of their townhouses. These conservatories resemble the Victorian conservatories of today with a framed construction and a centralised pitched roof. These builds were made from steel or iron. During this period, windows were single glazed. Double glazing wouldn’t become a thing until the 1970s.
The popularity of glazed conservatories peaked during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837 to 1901). However, their popularity declined during the early 20th century as a result of two world wars. Austerity hit everyone hard and conservatories were a luxury many simply could not afford to build or upkeep. Most were dismantled for their iron or steel with these metals used to manufacture ammunition and supplies.
The next big innovations in conservatories would come during the 20th century with the introduction of double glazing and uPVC. The latter would spawn a new era of mass-produced conservatories available ‘off-the-shelf’.