Ever since ancient times, flowers have held both practical and cultural significance. Whether the question at hand was decoration, medicine, or the wooing of a potential mate, men and women have turned to flowers for help. But during the Victorian era, flowers took on a very particular social significance due to the development of an elaborate system of floral symbolism called the “Language of Flowers.” In other words, a bouquet was no longer simply a bouquet; it was a secret message, and one had to know the meanings of the flowers that composed it in order to decode it.
The first recorded instance of a structured floral language appeared in the early eighteenth century when Lady Mary Wortley Montagu noted that women in Turkish sélams used flowers to pass along messages. One hundred and fifty years later, communicating through floral symbols became a popular pastime for educated, upper- and middle- class people like the Flynn family. Publishers began releasing “dictionaries” that included the symbolic meaning of hundreds of flowers, trees, shrubs, fruits, and other plants. One such book resides in the ladies’ parlor of the Flynn home. By thoroughly perusing the pages of these dictionaries, readers would learn which flowers expressed love, which indicated friendship, and which could be used as insults.
For example, the dictionary in the Flynn House associates marigolds with grief, pain, and trouble; on the other hand, it lists day lilies as a symbol of flirtatiousness and coquetry. Such volumes could also shed light onto the subtleties of the system, as the color of the bloom could change its meaning. For instance, white violets were known to symbolize “innocence,” while a purple violet indicated feelings of romantic love.
In addition to being an amusing pastime, this complicated system of conveying messages with blossoms saturated the popular culture of the mid to late 19thcentury. Flower dictionaries often contained botanical information and novelty items like calendars in addition to their lists of definitions. Beyond the books themselves, magazines like Harper’s Monthly and Godey’s Ladies’ Book included features that referenced the Language of Flower, including poems and pictures. There was even a popular parlor game in which blindfolded party guests would pick a flower from a vase. The blooms chosen were meant to tell players something about their future love or personality.
The Language of Flowers was attractive to Victorians for several reasons. There was an increased interest in botany during this period as it became fashionable to “bring the outdoors inside” to decorate one’s home. In addition, ownership and deep knowledge of a Language of Flowers manual provided a sort of cultural capital for Victorians. The volumes enhanced one’s library, which helped to demonstrate how well a family was doing financially. Learning the language was also deemed an appropriate and instructive accomplishment for young ladies. Finally, floral symbolism provided a unique avenue for personal expression. Victorian rules and mores put strict controls on what ideas and feelings could and could not be expressed in conversation; flowers gave people the unique opportunity to communicate more personal or daring messages visually without directly flouting the rules of polite society.
Submitted by Sarah Purdy
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