There are certain phenomena we associate with the Victorian era, many of which we continue to see decades later. One such idea is the language of flowers. In this edited interview with Kate Levasseur, we learn about the role that flowers played in communication in Victorian society, as well as their continued significance today.
Ria Tomar: In what ways can flowers represent different messages?
Kate Levasseur: Starting in 1819 was actually when you saw, what is agreed to be, the first “meaning of flowers” book. It was called The Language of Flowers by Charlotte de la Tour, and it had over 300 different meanings for flowers. It was pretty straightforward; this flower means this. Combining several flowers together into a bouquet might tell a story. You might have a flower that means friendship, and a flower that means hope, and a flower that means love. A red rose might mean love, for example. That was kind of how these meanings got started, since courtship in the 19th century wasn’t quite as open or direct as we would think about it today. It was a way to be a little more subtle — a way to communicate in an era where you couldn’t just call or text people, and give messages the way we can today.
Ria Tomar: You mentioned that certain flowers might correspond to different messages like hope or love, so were these flowers more often intended to correspond to well-known meanings, or were they intended to be understood only by the recipient?
Kate Levasseur: I would say, generally speaking, it was a broader meaning. There were tons of books that were published about it; the book started in France, and then other publications picked up on it: books were published in Britain, and then it crossed over to the US and Canada, where they looked to European cultures for examples of how to be stylish or elegant. The meanings were generally well-known and accepted, but it’s possible that, maybe if you didn’t have access to those books, you knew the idea from reading about it in a magazine or newspaper. Or you could be creative; with a group of friends you might come up with your own code. But they were definitely well-known and accepted meanings that were published in books for mass consumption.
Ria Tomar: How did certain flowers come to be associated with certain meanings; was it because of the book?
Kate Levasseur: Yeah, I would say so. And you do see some different meanings for the same flower in different books, especially if they’re not as mainstream, and by that I mean not widely available. There were books that had meanings for cacti, so there were obviously not climates everywhere in France, Britain, and North America where you could grow cacti or where it would be available. So it’s possible, then, that someone in that region that had it available could make up their own meaning for it, and someone else somewhere had a different meaning. Overall, someone along the way just decided that’s what it would be, and everyone kind of went along with it. This is similar to things like birthstones, or, if you’re familiar with a “gold anniversary”, which is if you’ve been married 50 years; a “silver anniversary” for 25. Someone came up with it at some time, and everyone just passed it down.
Ria Tomar: How often in the Victorian era might the flowers have been used to exchange messages, and does that frequency differ from how often we see them being used today?
Kate Levasseur: You do see a lot of books written about it, so the idea was widespread. But the actual use of the flower code — unless you have primary source documents saying “I received this bouquet”, for example — is hard to track down for sure. I’ve never seen any documents that may say something like “50% of young women received message bouquets”, or something like that. You also have some class elements; some of the flowers that have meanings are going to be expensive to grow. Your average working class family isn’t going to have a hothouse in the middle of winter where they can go get flowers, or might not spend their money on that even if they had it. A farm family in Iowa might just use the flowers they’ve planted in their cutting garden or that are just growing on their property.
Cacti, in the meanings that I’ve read, has a really nice meaning. The idea was that Cupid’s arrow might get stuck in you and then you’d be in love, just like the spines of a cactus might get stuck in you as well. It seems like it might be bad, but it’s talking about “love that lasts”. But someone in London, for example, might not have a cactus unless they have access to a greenhouse and are growing one there. I would say that people liked the idea of the flower code; it was written about a lot, and fit into the Victorian social customs of being subtle. It was widely known about, but how much it was actually practiced — definitely not everyone. But it’s interesting for us to learn about and look back on.
Ria Tomar: You mentioned cacti and it’s regional significance. Could different regions of the world, depending on which flowers they had available, have different meanings associated with the same flower?
Kate Levasseur: I’m sure! There’s one flower; one meaning for it was modesty, and in another book the meaning was that the recipient would soon be receiving money from the giver. Those are obviously two very different meanings for the same flower in the same time period. It might not have been a very common flower — so different people started using it in association with different meanings — and both meanings could pick up steam in their own locations. So I would say, definitely, there could be regional differences.
Ria Tomar: Finally, how do you think the role of flowers as a form of communication has evolved from the Victorian era to become the phenomenon that it has today, in adaptation to today’s social culture?
Kate Levasseur: There’s definitely still some leftover meanings now. In Western culture, for example, red roses are really common to give people on an anniversary or a date. So red roses meaning love are a holdover from the Victorian language of flowers. Even though it’s not a complex meaning in a bouquet, that meaning has stuck over 150 years. White roses, or white flowers, are often used for weddings. Again, there’s that holdover meaning of innocence and purity. So, even if a bride isn’t choosing her flowers specifically for their meanings, there’s still that custom of using that color for that occasion. One that’s different is a yellow rose — and I use roses as an example because they’re still so popular in the floral industry that they’re still widely used today — which, in the Victorian era, would have had a negative meaning like jealousy. But today, a modern meaning for yellow flowers is usually friendship, or happiness. I think one reason why the popularity and the idea are an interest is because the idea has had a resurgence: when Prince William married Kate Middleton and she became the Duchess of Cambridge, she used picked flowers for their meanings for her bouquet. When that was published in paper, since it was a trend or a clashing phenomenon, if you will, people realized, if they hadn’t before, that flowers can mean something. They might research on Google or Pinterest what some of those meanings were. I think that that event may have led to interest in the flower code. You see this idea with other cultural phenomena; people are really interested in calligraphy, or cursive, Spencerian handwriting. It’s the idea of revisiting elegance from the past: maybe fallen out of fashion in our society today, but a leisure activity that we can pick back up and look into.