There is nothing that rivals a live floral centerpiece to make a fragrant and impressive display. If that centerpiece combines fresh water and fragrant floating flowers, the presentation is raised to a classy and appealing level of elegance. This very type of floral presentation was once popular in America, between the late 1930s and late 1950s, and employed crystal or glass pieces most commonly called “float bowls.”
These float bowls were designed to create a tableaux reminiscent of water lilies floating on a formal garden pond. The idea is simple, and stands in visual contrast to flowers in a vertical vase. In a float bowl, a flower floats when the sunken portion of the flower weighs as much as the water it displaces. Wide, flat flowers like magnolias, camellias, gardenias, and peonies spread their weight over a large area with wide petals that push away enough water to equalize the weight. Other flowers, like roses, cannot distribute their dense weight, and will sink to the bottom of the bowl. Thus, some but not all flowers naturally work in a float bowl.
The float bowl was, and is, a truly elegant table piece. Float bowls were made by most of the American handmade glass manufacturers, but do not appear in the less expensive Depression-era patterns of the same time. Fostoria, Imperial, Tiffin, Cambridge, Heisey, and other handmade glass companies made them. The machine-made glass companies like Jeanette, Federal, Hazel-Atlas, and Anchor Hocking did not.
The names for the same form vary greatly. The Cambridge Glass Company called theirs “gardenia bowls.” Fostoria Glass called it a “Floating Garden” in their popular Navarre pattern, but it was shown in the catalog as “Lily Pond” in their Kent pattern. Heisey Glass made three distinct float bowls in their Puritan pattern; one was a “gardenia bowl,” one was a “camellia bowl,” and one was an “oblong floral bowl.”
Imperial Glass also made float bowls in the 1930s. In their popular Mount Vernon pattern, the float bowl is 9 inches across, with a shallow pool around 2 inches deep. This is the basic form and size of most float bowls: wide and shallow. More elaborate float bowls incorporated candlestick holders and/or crystal glass figurines. Tiffin Glass Company produced such an example in the late 1940s that featured a sleek fawn standing timidly at the water’s edge. The bowl measures 14 1/2 inches long, 9 1/2 inches wide, and 1 3/4 inches deep. The standing fawn figurine measures 10 1/2 inches tall and 3 inches wide.
Today these evocative floating garden dishes remind us of a forgotten elegance. Like a miniature reflecting pool, they capture images and stir our imagination. The ability to bring fragrances into our homes remains a desired function today. We have, however, switched to plug-in electric gadgets, plastic pop-open dispensers, and an almost endless variety of synthetic chemical fragrances to give us the same experience a floating gardenia in a float bowl once provided. How easy, how simply, how environmentally sound, and how beautiful is a float bowl in the place of a plastic cone! Consider making a float bowl a center attraction in your home – relive the past, be green, and enjoy the aromatic gifts of a summer garden!