In the Victorian Era, a proper etiquette among the upper class in England was totally different to modern days one and those restrictions gave rise to flower language. At that time there were many rules and customs that no longer exist; People were expected to be more subtle: outright flirtations were prohibited, and questions about relationships were taboo. Most of it will fill a bit odd those days, but it was mainly based on simple good manners. Inability to express your feelings freely created a culture where secret messages were conveyed through the flower language.
History of Victorian flowers – birth of flower dictionaries:
Flowers were used as symbols throughout history, however, the idea of using flowers to send messages reached its peak in the 1800s.
The craze for the Victorian flower language finds its roots in Ottoman Turkey, in particular in Turkish “selam”. This tradition originated in Turkish harems as a game, selam was a “language” which was supposed to be decoded by attaching rhyming words to particular flowers and other objects. However, when Englishwoman Mary Wortley Montagu (1689–1762) introduced it to Europe people liked the flower aspect and got rid of other aspects. This resulted in the establishment of floriography – cryptological communication through flower arrangement.
Mary Wortley Montagu introduced the concept in her Turkish embassy letters, which only briefly mentioned this tradition. But as they become popular in Europe the concept spread like wildfire.
Quick embrace of the concept was facilitated by an unusual convergence of concentrated wealth and the Industrial revolution. Technological progress meant that sufficiently wealthy could build mansion-sized conservatories out of architectural glass, and since coal and labour were both very cheap, they could heat their indoor gardens to the desired temperatures all year-round. This meant that they had access to non-native plants that can be harvested for flower messages.
Soon the first dictionary of floriography followed. It was published by Louise Cortambert, under the pen name ‘Madame Charlotte de la Tour,’ and was titled ‘La Langage des Fleurs’.
Flower language was popularised in France about 1810–1850, whereas in Britain it became popular during the Victorian era (1820–1880), and then travelled to the United States (1830–1850). La Tour’s book was just the start, soon many other countries started publishing floriography books.
In the United States between 1827 and 1923, there were at least 98 different flower dictionaries in circulation. At the same time flower code was a regular discussion topic in magazines like Harper’s and the Atlantic. This increasing popularity soon translated into adoption across literature and fine art.
Like so many things, this boom ended with the start of the great war. After the end of World War I, floriography had largely vanished. Faced with limited resources people had to shift their attention away from flower meaning to the rebuilding of society. The rich demolished their hothouses or re-purposed them. Sadly these days only a few examples remain as museum exhibits. Once the elite stopped assigning messages to bouquets, floriography slowly trickled down. Urbanisation drew artist’s focus away from nature and soon this artform was altogether forgotten.
Why can different meanings be assigned to different flowers?
Some say that flower language books were mainly targeting rich and bored females and become a fashionable item for the coffee table. Such books were mainly used for page flipping and to facilitate chit chat, rather than creating bouquets with meaning, so there is no surprise that various meanings got assigned to the same flower.
Variations in meanings can also be due to the meaning being drawn from how the flowers were presented, their combination, and even from who received them. Much of Victorian etiquette was dictated by who was around to observe the manners. For example, if the flowers were given upside-down then their meaning was opposite to the traditional one. The meaning can also be drawn from the hand which presented the flowers.
Flower dictionaries in the victorian era were mainly created for secrecy and to provide the giver and recipient with secret knowledge. A large pool of writers at different locations and social classes lead to multiple meanings being assigned to the same flower. Even today different cultures assign different messages to the same flower. One would only hope that each party was literally on the same page when it came to the interpretations.
Symbolic Rose Meanings
For example, rose has the following meanings:
Now let’s have a look at colour meanings
- Yellow Rose:
- Joy, Protection against envious lovers, Mature love
- White Rose:
- Purity, Sanctity, Secret admirer, Mysticism
- Red Rose:
- Sacrifice, Immortal love, Health, Memorial, Passion
- Pink Rose:
- First love, Innocence, Healing
Readding flower language was difficult in the victorian era and today it is simply impossible! Just think how many websites, books and other sources are trying to assign a certain meaning to a flower. Not to mention the effect globalisation has had on the subject. You will most likely struggle to read the meaning or to convey one. While fresh good looking flowers are a nice present and will brighten up the day for most people they are not the best way to express your feelings, words and actions can tell much more. So let’s stick with them.