Flowers and Sexual Tension in the Gilded Age

Victorians are (rightly) thought to have been more reserved than we are, and certainly were less ‘expressive’ (or explicit) about expressing their views, feelings, and desires, except among family and close friends. Even then, proper etiquette and a degree of restraint were prized as virtues and as evidence of a good upbringing.

Alicia Miller’s favorite flower - the Liberty Rose.

Yet even if we grant that Gilded Age folks were a good deal less verbose than we are today — no blogs, Twitter, or text — we have also to understand that they had available to them a range of means and methods of communication that were subtler than is talking someone’s ear off. Many of these means of communication were entirely non-verbal:  what you wore, for example – the color of a necktie or a fancy ribbon – broadcast things to the world without a word being uttered.

Today, most of these subtle means of communication might as well be like hieroglyphics – entirely unreadable to most of us.

One that does survive, in part, is mourning dress. When someone of Western origin (customs differ in the Far East and elsewhere) dies, most often mourners wear black or other somber tones to ‘express’ sorrow and empathy with the deceased person’s family. That was certainly true in the Gilded Age, too, though predictably the rules about mourning dress were complex and had to be followed to the letter, depending on who had died and when.

More on that another time.

One of these lost forms of communication – or nearly lost – is floriography, the so-called ‘language of flowers’. In Victorian times, most every flower had a symbolic meaning. A few of these have survived into our time – red roses for love, baby’s breath to emulate the white lace of the bridal gown and express the notion of purity – but what about crocuses, peonies, or lavender?

In my forthcoming novel, A Murder in Ashwood, Sarah Payne meets Annie Murray, who stops by Sarah’s house on Norwood Street to apply for a position as detective with Sarah’s fledgling agency. Annie is wearing a crocus on the lapel of her outfit (a silk one – yes, they had silk flowers then too), and to break the ice Sarah remarks that Annie must be a cheerful person. 

To Gilded Age people the crocus meant ‘cheerfulness’, and wearing one would express a mood of good cheer. Giving someone a bouquet containing them could encourage the recipient to ‘cheer up’.


Crocus. Amédée Masclef, Atlas des plantes de France, 1891. Crocuses meant ‘cheerfulness’ in floriographical terms.

Peonies – one of my personal favorites – feature petals that curl inward, and so in floriographical terms they symbolized bashfulness. If a woman gave a suitor a peony, it might mean ‘take it slow’.  Lavender, today a staple of many grocery story bouquets, suggested ‘distrust’. A bouquet with a sprig of lavender in its depths might send a signal that ‘I’m not quite sure about you yet’.

How delightful!

In 1870, when literary icon Thomas Wentworth Higginson visited Amherst to meet the reclusive poet Emily Dickinson, Emily received him in the parlor. Mr. Higginson bowed and extended his calling card, as any proper gentleman would do. And Emily responded to his greeting by handing him two daylilies from her garden. Flowers were her chosen calling card, but unlike a typical calling card, printed in the hundreds and rarely varying for the recipient – Emily’s was selected specifically to express something to her illustrious guest. 

In the language of flowers, daylilies could intimate a few things, from devotion (Emily certainly looked up to Higginson) to playful flirtation (many people don’t know that the austere Miss Dickinson was quite an avid flirt). It would be up to Mr. Higginson to divine Emily’s intentions – never a word would be spoken.

Today Emily might have texted Higginson an emoji. It works, I guess, but it doesn’t have the same magic.

And floriography is but one part of what nourished the very interesting sexual tension in the Victorian world.  Men and women alike had available to them a rich symbolic vocabulary that could express highly nuanced feelings, while conjuring a sense of mystery and reserve that was – what can I say? – as intoxicating and elusive as the fragrance of a flower.

For an excellent (and beautifully executed) book about this topic, I recommend Floriography: An Illustrated Guide to the Victorian Language of Flowers, by Jessica Roux. There are many other good references, both modern and period, but this volume is a great place to start and a lovely thing in and of itself.