Why do we think of the Victorians when we think of the language of flowers?
This is a question I only recently began to ask myself when I graduated with my English degree and began working for Floracracy. For my senior seminar, I took a course that covered the Pre-Raphaelites, and before that, I took a Gothic literature course. This was initially how I became familiar—and then a little obsessed with—the symbolism of flowers within 19th century paintings and poems. Literature course after literature course, I took for granted the idea that this was a truly Victorian thing that I was studying. That they invented it, and that this language was part of and unique to their culture.
It wasn’t until I was working for Floracracy that I realized, well, I was wrong.
Turns out, the Victorians didn’t invent the language of flowers: they merely reinvented it. They took a centuries-old way of communicating and tailored it to fit their society’s interests and restrictions. In love with gardening and nature, they tended their gardens and participated in anything related to horticulture because flowers played a large role in their daily lives. It was an era of immense interest in gardens and a period of unprecedented restrictions on communication, together, that made people recreate a tool as old as humans themselves.
What though, between floral symbolism and the means to connect with one another in secret, made the language distinctly Victorian. And how does that contribute, for better or worse, to our understanding of floral symbolism today?
The Victorian Culture And Secret Messages
Vanessa Diffenbaugh, author of The Language of Flowers (2011), iterates the importance of flowers among the Victorians, “The majority of the population still lived on the land, nature itself was much more abundant and fruitful, and the notion of God spoke to man through the natural world.” Floral patterns were at the forefront of interior design and the tussie-mussie was a fashion accessory. Absolutely fascinated and enriched by flowers, their culture which restricted communication between the sexes, began to accommodate the language of flowers as a daily form of communication.
It is commonly acknowledged that the Victorians used flowers to share secret messages. With city populations growing, the middle class expanded and the literacy rate rose. Aristocrats felt pressured to maintain their upper class status, and exhibiting proper etiquette turned into a way to differentiate oneself from a lower class.
Upper class women were accompanied by men in public and not allowed to speak to someone of the other sex while gentlemen were not allowed to smoke or speak about certain matters in public. The question to ask then is why wouldn’t they find a way to communicate secretly?
Sending positive messages in the form of an arrangement allowed people to share their thoughts and feelings about another in an era marked by taboo and proper etiquette guidelines. The overall period was shrouded in isolation and confinement due to these social restrictions.
Flowers gave the Victorians a way to escape these limitations. Bouquets became a frequent gift exchange, and the giver made sure the chosen flowers reflected the intended message. Tulips, meaning perfect love, were often sent to declare love for another. If a man sent a bouquet of tulips to a woman, showcasing his love for her, she could send back a yellow carnation, evidence of her disdain.
Secret messages still excite us. Some of my fondest memories of elementary and middle school are the ones where secret messages were passed around between me and my best friends on post-it notes. We would giggle as the note ventured from friend to friend, the teacher oblivious to our conversation. Each one of us would slowly open the post-it behind our desks, reading the note, and then glancing to meet the eyes of our friends who were antsy to see our reaction. Better yet, sometimes autonomous love notes appeared on my desk.
In an article about note passing, psychologist Dr. Ken Shore shares why this activity is an ongoing trend in the classroom: “For many students, exchanging secretive, and often personal, information is an exciting way to pass the time in school, especially during lessons or classes they find boring.” In the Victorian era, however, expressing feelings and what was considered improper conversation between genders took place among adults.
As the Victorians’ interest in nature rose, numerous flower dictionaries were published. These books were considered a staple in the Victorian home as a guidebook to various flowers and their meanings.
They contained hundreds of flowers, trees, shrubs, fruits, and other plants along with their symbolic meanings. People sought these texts to learn more about botany. Plus having a copy in your at-home library meant that you were financially doing well. To some degree, every Victorian had a working understanding of the language of flowers as it was a custom to communicate in this way.
Le Langage des Fleurs (1819) by Charlotte de Latour became the first western dictionary about the language of flowers. This version influenced the perception that the language of flowers was “Victorian,” at least in western societies.
The Impact of a Recent Era Obsessed with Floral Meanings
While the Victorian era ended in 1901, the love of the language of flowers and the unique communication it offers us when words are not enough lives on today. This era’s influence spread the concept to western civilization, which resonated then and still does now. So, in what ways has language changed since the Victorians reinvented it, and why are we still interested in it?
As the Victorians combined their love of horticulture with an ancient understanding of language and symbolism, they created visual representations of their thoughts and feelings that otherwise were not acceptable to share openly. They didn’t have the same options to communicate as openly and freely as we can today. The strict etiquette of their society helped them revive an ancient way of communicating: with flowers that spoke for them.
A chart of the language of flowers
Our team continues to see the tremendous response of flower lovers throughout our social media platforms. When we share vintage botanical illustrations and what those florals mean, these meanings open a conversation among a global floral community we didn’t know existed today. We’ve also learned from every individual that has added floral facts or personal stories to the dialogue. That alone has shown us how people continue to resonate with flowers and their meanings in today’s world.
To some, the language of flowers remains their favorite language. Beyond the textures, fragrances, and colors of flowers, there is a need to seek connection in meaningful ways today. The language of flowers, used for ritualistic expression by ancient cultures way before the Victorians, helps us capture the essence of our stories and the human experience in ways that words alone can’t.
A Victorian Flower Dictionary: The Language of Flowers Companion by Mandy Kirkby