The History and Etiquette of Flower Giving

by Katie Stevenson

Excitement ran through Meredith’s body as the choir took one more bow. The final bits of applause lingered in the air, and the audience began to stir, anxious to congratulate a child, neighbor, or friend who had just performed. Meredith filed off of the risers and hurried to gather her things backstage before meeting her parents in the foyer of the theatre. She was eager to see them, not only to hear their compliments but also for the flowers. Every year her parents gave her flowers after the Spring Concert. Although she had come to expect them, they were still a nice token of her parents’ love and appreciation. As Meredith got into the car, breathing in the sweet aroma of fresh cut flowers, she wondered how flower giving ever started. When and where did people begin giving flowers? What do they mean? Is there a reason why people give flowers?

Giving flowers to performers is a custom that has developed over the centuries.

Actually, the act of giving flowers dates back to prehistoric times. The symbolic use of flowers is mentioned in Egyptian inscriptions, Chinese writings, and in both Greek and Roman Mythology. Gathering flowers is even in the Bible. In ancient mythology, flowers were used as emblems of gods. The word “floral” actually comes from the Roman Goddess Flora who was the Goddess of flowers, youth and spring. According to Greek Mythology, the Goddess Cybele created the rose.  According to the story, Cybele was jealous of Aphrodite’s beauty and wanted to create something on Earth more beautiful then her rival.  Each ancient culture had their own interpretation of the history, origin, meaning, and significance of flowers.

The public ritual of giving flowers on certain occasions developed over a long period of time. This custom flourished during The Middle Ages, when the harsh restraints placed on courtships in that era led to the development of “flower language”. Exchanges of flowers would take place over weeks or months and it gave couples the ability to express themselves without others seeing, overhearing, or interpreting. In the 1600’s, there was an actual “flower language” used in Turkey so unequivocal messages could be sent. It was so refined that even military messages could be sent in a harmless gift of flowers.

“Flower language,” or “Floriography,” allowed structured messages to be made such as refusals, acceptances, declaration of love, and dismissals. It enabled couples to express their feelings within the borders of a strict etiquette. The context in which the flowers were given was also part of the message. The way they were offered, the type, and color of the flower, all contained a different message for the receiver. For example, if they were handed over in the right hand, the answer to a previous question was “yes”. If they were handed over in the left hand, the answer was “no”. If the flowers were presented upright, the message was a positive one. Upside down however, the meaning was opposite and usually negative. If a ribbon around the flowers was tied to the left, the meaning of the flowers referred to the giver. If the ribbon was tied to the right, it referred to the recipient. Also, if someone were to give an object like a handkerchief or a piece of clothing that carried the scent of a flower or plant, the object carried that meaning as well as the flowers would have.

This “flower language” survived into the Victorian age, but many of the connotations and meanings of certain flowers were changed. A flower that meant “I love you” might now mean “I do not love you”. Sending flower messages still remained ever popular and in fact, most of the flower meanings and interpretations that we use today are the ones that were used in the Victorian age.

Flowers were a major part of the culture in many countries for the past few centuries and they were taken very seriously. A law in England prohibited women from dying their hair with Saffron dye because it was obtained from the blue autumn crocus. It was also prohibited from being picked, traded or sold and death was often a punishment for these lawbreakers. An old tale tells of a courageous and bold Englishman who dressed up like a religious pilgrim and walked on foot to the Holy Land carrying a staff. The staff, however, was hollow, and inside he had stuffed several crocus knobs to bring back and sell in England.

In 1819, the first flower dictionary of meanings and interpretations was written by Madam Charlotte de la Tour. It was entitled Le Language des Fleurs and it was a big hit, selling a large number of copies, mostly to ladies hoping to send flower messages to their lovers. The handbook included nearly one thousand different meanings for flowers and other plants and herbs. It became a popular reference on the subject of flower messages. Later, in 1879, a Victorian woman, Miss Corruthers of Inverness wrote an entire book on the subject of flower messages. It became a customary source for flower symbolism and interpretation in England and the United States.

As flower messages continued to flourish, ever admired, under Queen Victoria’s reign in England in the 19th century, many more dictionaries of flower meanings sprang up as many gardeners and botanists saw it as a good way to make money and spread their passion.  A book called “Flora Symbolica” written by John Ingram became an extremely popular book on the specific meanings of flowers and bouquets. It told how to share feelings through flowers while still following the strict behavioral guidelines. Many of these books and dictionaries can still be found today in libraries, bookstores, and online. This new floral language appeared in books, art, and poems during the Romantic Period, especially in London. The poet Thomas Hood noted, “Sweet flowers alone can say what passions fear revealing,” in his poem “The Language of Flowers” written in the early 1800’s.

During the Renaissance, as theater and performing started becoming popular, flowers became part of many traditions and superstitions. It is considered very unlucky to have real flowers onstage, (unless handed up to the leading lady at the end of a play), or to receive flowers before a performance. This is actually quite sensible as under the hot lights of the stage, the flowers would wilt and go bad. Plastic flowers are now always used in productions.  Receiving flowers after a performance is considered a sign of good luck. These traditions and superstitions eventually carried over to operas, ballets and all stage performances.

Flower giving is still very popular in performances and between couples. If you think about it, flowers are used for many different occasions including weddings, funerals, courtships, and holidays. Many people, like Meredith, may wonder where the traditions of flower giving began as they see flowers handed to a director, conductor, or performer at a performance. Knowing this information gives you a heads up to the history of flowers and the role they play in the world of performing arts.  As a performer or a parent, the tradition of giving flowers to your director or child is a good one to pass on because not only are you giving them a token of your appreciation, congratulations, and thanks, you are also teaching them a lesson about how the customs of the past become the traditions of the present.