Frost Flowers on the Windows (1899)

In Frost Flowers on the Windows, expatriate Swedish actor, theater producer, and writer Albert Alberg (1838–1924) leads us on a fin-de-siècle walkabout across Chicago. His goal is to document a “New, Truly Great Discovery”: the extraordinary power of windowpane frost to take “ice photographs”, images capable of expressing the “vital qualities” of life forms close to the glass.

During the Great Arctic Outbreak of 1899, which plunged North America into record lows, Alberg was eating at his favorite German restaurant. Looking up, he saw the outlines of ferns, celery stalks, and a withered geranium etched in ice upon the window. Although most of the celery on his table had been consumed, leaving only undesirable leftovers — stalks that were “thin and small and without scarcely any leaves, mere tufts being suffered to remain” — their images appeared in frost as the “most vividly depicted stalks of celery with sprigs and leaves”, proof that “no other plant [is] endowed with such an extraordinary powerful vitality”.

After his supper, Alberg proceeds to conduct an “espionage into this secret branch of nature”. He finds tropical plants reproduced on the frosted glass of a saloon serving punch made from coconut and sugarcane; pineapples in the windows of a Greek fruit dealer; cereals, vegetables, and even a shopgirl’s lace apron on the panes of a Swedish restaurant; and, at a small grocery, celery stalks are again cast across the glass. Writing during a decade in which celery tonics dominated the patent medicine trade, Alberg takes this last apparition as proof that “‘Jack Frost’ therefore seemingly most emphatically endorses celery as a conserver and restorer of vitality”.

Though a modern reader might take this mercantile frost extravaganza to be Alberg’s deep-freeze-induced hallucination, he mentions a number of witnesses. Spying cabbage leaves delineated on the kitchen window at a friend’s home, he ventures (correctly) that they had recently dined on cabbage. Calling at the home of another friend, he finds a miniature landscape — complete with flat-roofed house, steepled church, and a moored boat — portrayed on the window of his son’s bedroom. When the son confesses that he often dreams of the family’s ancestral farm outside Cleveland, his father recognizes the ice tracing as a fair depiction.

Having moved in Spiritualist circles during his fifteen-year residence in London, and Chicago’s large Theosophical community since his arrival in 1890, Alberg writes prose tinged with both the Spiritualist language of “materialization” and Theosophical language of the astral realm. Apart from his countryman Linnaeus’ 1761 report of producing ice figures from crushed seeds, the only authority Alberg cites is Theosophical writer Franz Hartmann on the subject of alchemical palingenesis — the resurrection of life forms. And despite a long Western tradition of anthropomorphizing the uncanny animations of ice crystals as the magical work of “Jack Frost”, and a full-blown Victorian rage for “frost flowers” (known as Eisblumen in Germany, where the Romantic imagination was gripped by the creative powers of these shapes), no one had previously conducted the sort of phenomenological survey that Alberg undertook during that bone-shatteringly cold winter of 1899.

That nary a single illustration accompanies Alberg’s text is frustrating, but perhaps understandable, for only a handful of pioneer photographers had mastered the technical demands required to capture images of such subtle forms. Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley’s unprecedented microphotographs of snowflakes were first made in the 1880s; Englishman James Leadbeater published his first clear photographs of windowpane frost in the 1890s. Nearly all of the dozens of Victorian poetic paeans to “frost-work” emphasized its ephemerality. At first light or breath, the tracework would fade.

Sadly, the fate of this monograph went the way of frost flowers. Aside from a plea to readers from The American Monthly Microscopical Journal to test his findings, and a single notice of the book in the Chicago journal of popular occultism The Star of the Magi, the work vanished from view. Yet the author’s own interest in the phenomenon continued unabated. In 1912, when Alberg sent a copy of Frost Flowers to British zoologist Alfred Russell Wallace, he still hoped to publish further observations. Living once again in Sweden, Alberg lamented how the use of double-pane windows largely prevented “fine ice-palingenesis”.

When he died in 1924, Alberg was unaware that Ehrenfried Pfeiffer — struck by the difference between frost forms on the windows of florist and butcher shops in Basel, where he was studying chemistry — had been working to develop “sensitive crystallization” methods for demonstrating etheric forces, the elusive “vital energy” hinted at by Alberg’s discovery.

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