Floriography: The Language of Flowers in the Victorian Era


The Victorian Era ushered in a time of proper etiquette among the upper class in England during Queen Victoria’s reign (1837-1901). Among the many rules and customs, there were expected behaviors that prohibited outright flirtations, questions, or conversations between others.

Although the use of flowers to convey messages had been used in Persia and the Middle East, it was during the Victorian Era and the publication of flower dictionaries explaining the meaning of plants, flowers and herbs, that the tradition began to spread throughout England. Soon it became popular to use flowers to send secretive messages. Though often portrayed to relay positive messages of interest, affection and love, flowers could also send a negative message and at times, the same flower could have opposite meanings depending on how it was arranged or delivered.

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The Language of Flowers  – Though flowers and other plants have held significance for centuries, during the Victoria Era flowers began to gain special meaning. Flowers quickly increased in popularity as a way to send subtle messages to others. It was during the Victorian Era that a large list of meanings was assigned to flowers and the language of flowers came into being.

Floriography: The Language of Flowers  – During the Victorian Era, flowers and plants were used to communicate during a time when expected conventions restricted conversations for a variety of reasons. Flowers allowed secretive messages to be sent. As the long list of flowers and their meanings grew, books containing the meanings of various plants and flowers (floriography dictionaries) were published.

Sensational Color of Roses – According to information here, the language of flowers dates back further than the Victorian Era. It is believed flowers were used as a means of communicating in Persia and the tradition spread to England where it became more widely used during the Victorian Era when open communication in some topics was forbidden or not thought seemingly to express in public or mixed company.

Interpreting the Language of Flowers – During the Victorian Era, floriography became commonly used to express secreted messages that Victorian etiquette deems unacceptable to share openly. The language of flowers involved more than the simple meaning given to a flower. It also referred to the combining, presenting, and even the receiving of flowers. Victorian-Era Etiquette Much of Victorian etiquette was dictated by who was around to observe the behaviors and manners of others. There was a clear distinction between upper class, middle-class, and the poor. Proper etiquette often limited communications based on people of another social status, of a different gender, or within social situations.

Even within the same social class, many topics were taboo and it was impolite or downright rude to ask openly about relationships. Flirtations did take place, but often secretly and with attention to discretion. By today’s standards, much of Victorian etiquette seems overly complicated or foolish, when in fact; much of it was based on simple good manners. Some customs have been passed along and continued to be followed today such as men removing their hats when indoors, showing respect to women by opening doors for them or bringing a hostess gift to parties or when staying with someone. The gifts most exchanged during social engagements in the Victorian Era were flowers and careful consideration was given to be certain the flowers sent the message intended.

800px-MJ Heade Passion Flowers and Hummingbirds

Etiquette of the Victorian Era – Etiquette of the Victorian Era demanded attention to subtleties and doing the proper thing depending on situation, circumstances, and the company of those around you. Among the many rules of conversation, it was often considered impolite to outright ask or imply something, especially if it may offend others. Here is a sampling of rules and guidelines considered proper etiquette at that time.

The Victorian Era Etiquette  Though much is said about etiquette in the Victorian Era, it was largely a matter of concern for the upper class. Those of middle class were generally aware of expectations and did what they could to abide by expectations. However, for the common poor working class, there was no time to consult a set of rules when survival was the goal of the day. This site gives a glimpse into how Victorian Etiquette influenced conduct and shows how the use of floriography played a part in getting around rules pertaining to communication in a discrete manner.

1876 Victorian England Revisited – This site offers a unique glimpse into life during the Victoria area. From an overview of the period, to details of holiday traditions, and Victorian Etiquette, this site gives a good look at life in the Victorian Era.

Victoriana: Victorian Etiquette – Etiquette was a set of rules and expectations for all social occasions for both men and woman of proper upbringing. This magazine provides a look at etiquette in various situations from birth to death.

Marriage in the Victorian Era – During Victorian times, marriage was not so much a fairytale as it is portrayed in novels, etc. This website discusses the rules to follow and proper etiquette of this modest era. Floriography: History and Flower Dictionaries Many plants, herbs, and flowers are used for medicinal purposes, thought to possess magical qualities, or the ability to bring good luck, or ward off evil. As the tradition of using flowers to express messages spread to England during the Victorian Era there were flower dictionaries available that were printed as far back as 1819. John Ingram’s, Flora Symbolica was published during the height of the Victorian Era and included not only the meanings of one hundred flowers but stressed the etiquette in giving the correct flowers to present the message intended.

It is interesting to note that though there were and remain several flower dictionaries in use, not all agree on the same meaning of a flower. Meanings were given based on myths, traditions, medical use and at times, simply the active imagination of the one writing the dictionary. There seem to be regional differences as well based on customs or preference. A good example is a yellow rose, which in most situations, is a symbol of friendship. However, in Texas where the yellow rose also happens to be the State flower, the yellow rose symbolizes passionate undying love. Today, much of the meanings associated with specific flowers have been forgotten, but most people associate a single red rose with true love, or an appropriately named forget-me-not as a flower sent when someone is missed or leaving for a time.

Victorian Rituals: The Language of Flowers – The earliest flower dictionary was written in 1819. Written in Paris, it was titled, Le Language de Fleursand. In 1879, an entire book written by Miss Corruthers of Inverness, which quickly became the guide to the meanings behind flowers throughout England and the United States.

Five Components of Victorian Floral Design –The Victorian Era (1837-1901) opened the door for recognizing floral design as a form of artistic expression. This was when tussie-mussies and nosegay bouquets were first introduced.

822px-Severin Roesen - Victorian Bouquet - Google Art Project

History of Flower Meanings – During the Victorian Era, several floral dictionaries were published to explain the secret language of flowers (floriography). It was common to relay meanings handed down from various myths, fables, or legends. When all else failed to provide an explanation, meanings were often fabricated to suit the occasion. Several different flowers therefore could have the same meaning and at times, the same flower could even have opposite meanings based on how it was presented or combined with other flowers. Flower Meanings and Tussie-Mussies Tussie-mussies were small handheld fragrant bouquets often wrapped in lace doilies. Most often, they were a combination of fragrant herbs; each had its own meaning and a single central flower. Great care was taken to combine the selection in such a way that its meaning was accurately expressed. Tussie-mussies were also known as nosegays. They were sometimes carried at nose level to block out some of the unpleasant odors common during the Victorian Era. Suitors presented tussie-mussies to their ladies and watched to see if they were held at heart level, which indicated happiness and acceptance. Tussie-mussies held pointing downward were a sign of rejection. Not only did a certain flower have significance, but colors also expressed variations in intent or emotions. Even today, a red rose is said to be an expression of passionate or true love, a pink rose is a sign of warm affection, white roses are associated with purity, and yellow roses with friendship. (Unless you are a passionate Texan!)

The Language of Flowers – This is a comprehensive listing of flowers and their meanings. As is often the case, there are conflicting or confusing meanings given to the same flower. Overall, this is a good source to search for the meaning of many flowers and plants by common or botanical names.

Flower Meanings – Flowers and their meanings have changed throughout the years as many of the original meanings were forgotten. Cultural differences and even regional areas influence the meaning of flowers. Today flowers are connected with birthdays or a State Flower rather than a lot of intricate meaning. Lists of flowers according to the birth month and state can be found on this page.

Tussie-Mussies: “Talking Bouquets” – Tussie-mussies are also called nose bouquets. Traditionally composed of fragrant herbs held tightly together in a circular design with a single flower in the center, they became a popular floral gift during Victorian times. The custom of sending subtle communications with flowers began to influence what flowers were chosen based on the intended message.

Tussie-Mussies – During the Victorian Era, flowers were combined to signify messages. Small tightly composed hand-held bouquets known as tussie-mussies or a nosegay was given as gifts and to acknowledge special occasions. The way a bouquet was held often indicated acceptance, acknowledgement, or approval. Though today’s bridal bouquets are generally larger than a nosegay, they are a modern example of a tussie-mussie.