victorian garden urns
Photo: Joshua Paul
Though different in size and style, both these urns at Demolition Depot in New York City are examples of the campana form, which means they are shaped like upside-down bells.
Back in the day—way back, in Victorian times—having iron in your garden was a status symbol. Not just some old chunk of ore, but an ornate cast-iron urn, the kind you'd imagine overflowing with rare plants at Versailles.

You see, in the second half of the 19th century, besides covering practically every indoor surface with velvet, lace, or busy wallpaper, the Victorians gussied up their outdoor spaces, too. "It was a 'more is more' atmosphere," says Barbara Israel, owner of Barbara Israel Garden Antiques in Katonah, New York. "Decorating your small garden with vine-filled urns meant that you were cultured and you had the money to afford indulgences." The trend was led by America's emerging middle class, which could afford to devote land to beds full of vibrant annuals and romantic winding paths, rather than farm crops.

Early cast-iron urns, which date to about 1850, were modeled after ancient Greek and Roman architecture, with fluted, columnlike sides, scalloped cornices around the rims, and boxy pedestal bases reminiscent of a sturdy foundation. Handles sometimes took the forms of snakes, maidens, or mythological beasts. By 1880, urns were more fanciful, with the sorts of Rococo embellishments—cherubs, shells, and flowers—that characterized flamboyant 18th-century French furniture.

Major manufacturers of the time, including J. L. Mott Iron Works in New York and Wood & Perot in Pennsylvania, let you create your own designs, offering through mail-order catalogs a wide selection of urns that could be customized by swapping out different bowls, bases, and handles, Israel says. You could also choose among bronze, green, brown, and black finishes.
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