The Romans are given the credit for everything, so of course we’re told the “first greenhouse” was invented in 30 AD to grow medicinal Armenian cucumbers for Emperor Tiberius. These “greenhouses” seem to have consisted of little more than wheelbarrows with oiled cloth stretched over them. Later, substantial stone-built centrally heated structures roofed in sheets of translucent mica (selenite) were used. These “speculariums” were status symbols and entertaining spaces as much as for growing fruits and vegetables.
It seems unlikely that nobody noticed that lightly covering plants encourages faster growth during the 5000 years of agriculture that preceded Emperor Tiberius. Nevertheless, the story became influential in promoting the practice across Europe after it was described in the book “The Gardener’s Labyrinth” by English gardener Thomas Hill, published in 1577. Greenhouses were already in use in Korea as early as 1438, growing “Mandarin” oranges.
The two developments really responsible for igniting the European age of the greenhouse were the great voyages of discovery that returned with exotic plants from tropical climates and the development of technologies to produce better glass. Glass-covered “botanical gardens” gradually became playthings for the rich and the developing scientific community they financed. Favoured crops were high-value medicinal herbs. Not until the early 1800s were large greenhouses built in England and Holland and given over to production on a larger scale.
Their usual name at this time was “conservatory”, since they conserved the heat of the sun. Conservatories that housed oranges might be called “orangeries” and those that grew pineapples “pineries” and so on. Their produce remained a luxury reserved for those who could afford to build them, but it’s likely a few spare or broken glass panes began to find their way down to the common folk at this time for improvised cold frames.
The golden age of the greenhouse had to await further improvements in low-cost mass production of glass. When it became available in the mid nineteenth century, taxes on glass were drastically reduced too. The majority of this glass was tinted green, so the term greenhouse became common. It could now be used on a large enough scale to make greenhouse produce affordable, if only as an occasional luxury, for the majority of the population.
Cheap plentiful glass fuelled a wider construction revolution. Its light weight as a construction material enabled new kinds of building. Bigger and bigger greenhouses became a status symbol not merely for rich aristocrats but for entire nations. It was at this time that enormous and prestigious constructions like the Crystal Palace and the Palm House at Kew Gardens were erected. The Crystal Palace was put up in Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition of 1851, then moved in 1854 to the location south of London that still bears its name (it burned down in 1936). Temperature was controlled using louvre windows and canvas shades.
Although plant growing was by no means their only purpose, these palaces in glass were part of a growing romantic affection for the natural world that felt increasingly distant from the lives of many urban dwellers. On a smaller but more personal scale, this motivation surely continues into the present day.