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Tussie Mussies and the Victorian Language of Flowers

Posted on 02/29/2016

When is a flower more than just a flower? When it’s a hidden message of strong emotion.  In Victorian times, social customs dictated discretion above all else, so declarations of love or other strong feelings had to be coded. One way to do so was through floriography or the language of flowers.

The concept wasn’t invented in the 19th century. In ancient Greece, flowers were assigned meaning and the symbolism carried forth into the harems of Turkey. The Elizabethans picked up on the practice, using the names of flowers in poetry to signify unutterable thought. But it was the Victorians who fully embraced the language of flowers, to the extent that numerous dictionaries explaining the language were published.

During Queen Victoria’s reign (1837-1901), it became fashionable to carry a small nosegay or tussie mussie as an accessory: a flower was considered a more modest adornment than jewelry for a young woman. A tussie mussie was sometimes tied with a ribbon, but could also be carried in a cone-shaped, decorative silver holder, still used today for some bridesmaid bouquets. It wasn’t just women who donned flowers, though. Men took to wearing flowers in the buttonholes of everyday coats and jackets, not just for special occasions.

To send a message in the language of flowers, a bouquet or boutonniere would be exchanged. A combination of flower, foliage, or herbs could spell out a whole sentiment. Bouquets expressed not just love, but also friendship or familial connection.

The American cowslip was the flower of divine beauty, while the acacia was a flower of friendship. Roses were a complicated matter. While today a rose is all about romance, in Victorian times there were nuances to it. Red roses unmistakably meant romantic love, but a white rose, for example, meant “I am worthy of you.”


But there were also flowers that had less-than-cheerful meanings, such as ridicule, rebuff, coolness, and coquetry. The yew, for example, was the flower of sorrow. An almond flower would not have been a welcome gift: it meant stupidity and indiscretion. Messages could be customized. If the leaves were left on a flower, for example, the message was in the affirmative; if they were taken off, an opposite meaning was intended. Even the manner in which a bouquet was received had meaning: a right-handed exchange was a yes; a left-handed one, a no.

Definitions of flower meanings weren’t always consistent. One flower whose meaning never varied, though, was the stephanotis, the flower of “wedded bliss.” The flower became a popular feature of wedding bouquets and remains so today. Stop by The Biltmore Legacy to see the silk stephanotis bouquet, a recreation of the one carried by Mary Lee Ryan at her wedding to William A.V. Cecil, Cornelia Vanderbilt’s son. You can also see the many lovely tussy mussies and other floral decorations our Floral Displays team designed to accompany costumes in our Fashionable Romance: Wedding Gowns in Film exhibition.

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