Goodale had faced a similar problem when opening his museum: How do you display plants in a way that’s intriguing to the public? “Like the marine invertebrates, plants are also difficult to preserve and display in an exciting fashion,” says Brown. “Plants were traditionally pressed and flattened on herbarium sheets. You can see how a whole bunch of pressed, dried plants wouldn’t be the most exciting exhibit for the general public.”
Between 1887 and 1890, Brown says, the Blaschkas agreed to spend half of their time making plant models for Goodale’s museum; the other half was dedicated to their popular models of marine invertebrates. The first shipment of glass flowers arrived in Boston smashed to bits, thanks to rough handling by customs officials. But even in pieces, Goodale could tell how fine the work was. By 1890, Harvard had managed to negotiate an exclusive 10-year contract with the glassmakers. The project ended up lasting more than four decades; the final shipment of models was received in 1936.
Although the Harvard collection is arranged systematically to illustrate the development of plant life, it simultaneously reveals the evolution of the Blaschkas’ craft. Brown and Pfister walk me over to what they call “model number one,” which is among the earliest glass flowers in the collection. Part of the orchid family, it features a series of white blooms; the leaf is displayed separately from the stem. While these first models are “beautiful,” says Brown, “they’re not quite as delicate, they’re not quite as refined as later models. They were also pretty small in scale, just the one bloom, the one stem, and the one leaf.”