Humans have ascribed symbolism to flowers from time immemorial. The Roman Catholic church assigned varieties of flowers to represent different saints. Flowers were also ascribed symbolic meanings in the Hebrew Bible, Buddhism, and Chinese religions. The Japanese word for flower language is Hanakotoba.
So, although it's safe to say that no single culture invented the language of flowers, the Victorians certainly reinvented it. They coined the flamboyantly fitting word Floriography to describe the symbolism ascribed to individual flowers and codified it in writing.
Boldly expressing your feelings, especially amorous ones, wasn't socially acceptable in Victorian England. Flirting and public displays of affection were socially taboo, creating a societal obsession with romance. Like modern love-struck teenagers, Victorians sent their crushes encoded love notes using flowers instead of emojis.
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu planted the first seeds of this budding trend. Lady Mary lived in Constantinople with her Turkish ambassador husband from 1715 to 1718 and wrote extensively about her experiences. She gained notoriety for analyzing the social attitudes hindering women in the Ottoman Empire.
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu
Mary was also fascinated with a Turkish custom called Sélam. Sélam was a secret floral language used by women living in harems to share scandalous news. This struck a chord with British women reading Lady Mary’s essays while harboring libertine desires of their own.
Despite the tenacity with which Mary pursued her passions, the French were the first to transcribe the language of flowers. French authors published field guides to flower symbolism that were equal parts almanac, dictionary, poetry, prose, and natural history. These books were coffee table-worthy and compact enough to carry around and consult as needed.
The most famous was Le Language Des Fleurs, published by Madame Charlotte de la Tour in 1819. This book contained 300 flower illustrations with descriptions of their symbolic meanings and kickstarted a floriography craze in France while inspiring Britain and the USA to hop on the bandwagon.
In the 18th century, Parisienne jewelers started selling small flower bouquets called porte-bouquets which women carried in their hands or pinned to their dresses. The fad spread to England, with the British renaming these small bouquets tussie-mussies or nosegays. Tussie-mussies were the pinnacle of trendiness in Britain between 1837 and 1901 and the USA between 1830 and 1850.
Like most things in the Victorian era, the language of flowers had well-prescribed social etiquette. A male suitor initiated a courtship by presenting a woman with a tussie-mussie and waited for her response. Holding it in her right hand meant yes, while the left meant no. For a marriage proposal, a woman held a bouquet close to her heart to say yes or pointed it down to say no.
Victorian lovers used the language of flowers to engage in passionate conversations without actually speaking, making one wonder about inevitable misunderstandings. Floriography was also used to wish friends and family well. For instance, when someone was about to depart for a long journey, good luck messages were expressed via a bouquet of apple blossoms.
That practice of sending love notes via coded messages in flowers lessened in the 20th century as social mores evolved. However, the language of flowers remains forever in our hearts. Even today, a small bouquet is pinned to a prom dress or wedding tuxedo to express love and desire. Modern arrangers still choose what to include in their bouquets based on the language of flowers.
We hope the blooms on our buttons are passed down as expressions of loyalty and love through generations of your family.
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