Gazing Globes

Mysterious ‘Sphere of Light’ spotted at T.C. Steele State Historic Site
Scientists declare: “It’s more than just a fad.”

Photo courtesy Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN

Photo courtesy Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN

Occasionally, the appropriateness of the gazing globe that graces Selma Steele’s garden falls under question — usually by younger visitors to the site who assume these globes are a new thing. But they weren’t new even in Selma’s day. Like cicadas, they are cyclical, although I suspect the interval between periods of popularity is more than 17 years.

Fifty years ago, I remember being fascinated by them. A garden center near my grandparents home had a large outdoor display of them, and I came to associate gazing balls with grandparents and other things old (and interesting). My plea to possess one fell on deaf ears — then gazing globes fell out of fashion and I forgot about them until the latest resurgence of globe fever.

When they began showing up about 10 years ago, after some shameless hinting I received a beautiful purple glass orb for my birthday. It was a dream realized. But what I didn’t realize (like our young visitors) was that they represent more than a yard decoration.

The first gazing balls made their appearance in 13th century Venice. They were made of hand-blown glass, which limited their size somewhat. Today, there seems to be no limit on size, color, materials or placement. Selma would be envious of the selection — copper, stainless steel, mosaic and ceramic in addition to the traditional glass. Even the glass globes are varied, from mirrored to swirly opalescent.

Some of these newer models can’t truly be called gazing globes, since their surfaces aren’t reflective, but one of the many names they have answered to in the past might fit — yard balls, garden globes, chrome balls, garden gazers, good luck balls, Victorian balls, witch balls, globes of happiness or spheres of light.

T.C. Steele eyeballs the gazing ball. A close look reveals the photographer, Frank Hohenberger.

T.C. Steele eyeballs the gazing ball. A close look reveals the photographer, Frank Hohenberger. Photo courtesy Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN

Perhaps you too thought garden globes were purely decorative, but they serve to ward off evil, illness and misfortune — or so it was once believed. Visitors here most often describe T.C. Steele State Historic Site as peaceful, beautiful and relaxing — pretty much the absence of evil and misfortune. They probably have as many reasons for enjoying the site as there are varieties of gazing globes.

Our globe isn’t the only reason for the peaceful atmosphere here, but it plays a small (and historically authentic ) part in it. When the current craze for the gazing ball dims, our ‘sphere of light’ will remain, patiently waiting for the garden ball fad to make its return. The need for peace and happiness remains constant. Only the symbols we choose to represent it change — and then they change back again. We’ll keep our gazing globe after the fad fades. After all, it seems to be working.

Davie Kean is the master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site.

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