Springtime Project: Tussie Mussie

Learn how to create your own tussie mussie, inspired by fashions and the language of flowers during Queen Victoria’s reign (1837-1901). During this era, flowers were 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. They’re still used today for some bridesmaid bouquets.

Creating a Tussie Mussie

1. Start with the bushiest flowers first and add in additional flowers in a crisscross pattern. Rotate arrangement with each new flower added. 

2. Vary the height of each flower and remove excess greenery along the stems. Cut long stems for a petite and feminine look. 

3. Measure ribbon at 18-24 inches, cut and wrap around base. Tie a traditional bow and cut tails by folding the ends of each ribbon in half.

4. Find the perfect spot to display your arrangement! Whether used at a placesetting, or as an accessory, these simple arrangements are a beautiful way to incorporate fresh spring flowers into your decor.

Tussie Mussies and the Victorian Language of Flowers

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.

Our Top 10 Memories from 2015

We hope you enjoy this short video highlighting our “Top 10” memories from 2015. It was certainly a milestone year for Biltmore, marking the success and growth of our company as we continue to protect George Vanderbilt’s legacy and preserve the art of hospitality.

  1. We partnered with Cosprop for our first feature costume exhibition to display over 40 costumes from the hit PBS mini-series “Downton Abbey.” Due to overwhelming positive feedback, we have decided to showcase more costumes and historic fashion in our 2016 exhibition “Fashionable Romance: Wedding Gowns in Film.”
  2. Biltmore Blooms featured a gorgeous display throughout our 75 acres of landscaped gardens, this year including over 74,000 tulips and 15,000 daffodils.
  3. Six Summer Concerts spanned the month of August, with each artist performing on Biltmore’s South Terrace overlooking the gorgeous Blue Ridge Mountains. Our team is already working on a spectacular lineup for next year!
  4. Biltmore’s Sporting Clays Club opened their new location on the West Side of the estate, restoring a home estimated to be built between 1879-1889 that had remained on the estate from the pre-Vanderbilt era. The project received the 2015 Griffin Award from The Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County in the Adaptive Re-Use category.
  5. Biltmore For Your Home celebrated their 25th Anniversary, with their licensed partners and extensive line of home decor products continuing to draw inspiration from Biltmore and uphold the standard of excellence set by the Vanderbilt family.
  6. Biltmore’s North Tower Ridge Cap project spanned nearly the entire year, coming to completion in early November and showcasing our commitment to authenticity and preservation of the estate.
  7. We celebrated North Carolina Wine Month with the “Taste of Biltmore” in September, featuring numerous culinary events and demos of our estate-grown wines and field-to-table cuisine.
  8. Biltmore Winery celebrated its 30th Anniversary and continues to be the most-visited winery in the country, with distribution expanding to 21 states.
  9. Village Hotel on Biltmore Estate officially opened on December 1. This new lodging property offers a casual and convenient way to stay on the estate, with dining, shopping, our Winery just steps away.
  10. “Christmas at Biltmore” continues to be an amazing tribute to George Vanderbilt’s favorite holiday, and allows us to relive the excitement that he must have felt when he opened his home to family and friends for the first time on Christmas Eve 1895.

Thank you to all of our guests who visited Biltmore during 2015, and we look forward to seeing you again soon. Happy new year!

How a first-timer helps deck Biltmore’s halls

For the past decade, Tracy Ross has enjoyed Christmas at Biltmore from the sidelines, first as a host in Biltmore House and then as a member of the Reception & Ticketing Sales Center team. This year, however, Tracy has stepped into a new role with Biltmore’s Floral department, and she’s got her hands full of Christmas—literally!

Tracy Ross holds the tip of Biltmore's biggest tree“I’ve helped Floral over the years with things like fluffing trees,” Tracy said, “but this is the first time I have a personal stake in it, and I can say ‘I did that.’”

Tracy joined the team just a month before Floral began decorating for Biltmore’s most-anticipated season of the year. The theme—A Gilded Age Christmas—had already been decided and plans made for the decorative style featured in each room. That meant that Tracy jumped in wherever she was most needed, assisting her new co-workers in bringing holiday magic to life in America’s largest home and all across the estate.

“They are so incredibly organized,” said Tracy of her teammates. “Day-by-day, step-by-step, they’ve worked out all the details so that nothing falls through the cracks. And even though everything is planned, individual personalities shine through in the decorations!”

One aspect of decorating Biltmore that surprised Tracy is the research Floral conducts to ensure that their designs are historically accurate and connected to Vanderbilt stories and traditions. “A member of Floral wanted to include vintage ice skates in her room decorations,” Tracy said, “so she went through archival material until she discovered a photograph of Cornelia Vanderbilt skating on the ice-covered fountain pool on the Front Lawn of Biltmore House.”

Vintage ice skates with garlandThe photograph gave her the historic tie with Biltmore and the Vanderbilts that she needed to feature ice skates. “Her effort makes the décor in the Music Room that much more special and meaningful,” said Tracy.

Another thing that surprised Tracy? How much behind-the-scenes preparation work it takes to create the decorative elements for each room. “The garland for the Winter Garden took eight separate steps to complete,” Tracy explained. “We started with a thick garland that was beautiful on its own, and then we added layers of permanent botanicals like ivy, dusty miller, and pine branches. Then more layers of icy sparkles to achieve a true Gilded Age look and feel. When it was finished, it was unbelievably rich and luxurious—exactly what you’d expect the Vanderbilts to have in their home!”

While Tracy works with this season’s Christmas at Biltmore decorations, she’s already planning ahead for next year. “I feel very blessed and very lucky to be around all these talented people,” she said. “They’ve welcomed me to the team, and they trust me to begin putting my creative personality and ideas into the mix. I’ve always loved Biltmore and the holidays, but this year, that love has really been revitalized!”

Biltmore’s Conservation Team: Current Projects

Biltmore’s conservation staff undertakes conservation and preservation activities including examination, technical analysis, documentation (written and photographic), conservation and preservation related research, and conservation treatment of Biltmore collection objects.

The photo above shows our team working to catalog and store the almost 4,000 pieces of china and glassware in the Butler’s Pantry in Biltmore House. Most plates are stored in stacks, but some are too fragile and would crack from the weight of the other plates. Biltmore’s conservation team developed a system for storing the plates and using archival foam blocks to prevent damage.

Here are a few more of their current projects…

Upholstery conservator Anne Battram is treating the 67 Banquet Hall chairs

Conservators Anne Battram, Nancy Rosebrock, and Genvieve Bieniosek are treating the 67 Banquet Hall chairs, one at a time. The seats are stuffed with the original Spanish moss, plant material, and unidentified animal hair, all of which will be returned to the seat before it’s covered in fabric that is an exact reproduction of the original. The project will take more than two years to complete.

ivory figurine is tucked in display case on the Second Floor

This ivory figurine is tucked in display case on the Second Floor that can sometimes go unnoticed by guests. While in the Objects Lab recently, our conservators were able to get some detailed images and take a peek inside.

switchplates from storage in the sub-basement of Biltmore House

On the desk of Objects Conservator Renee Jolly: These switchplates were pulled from storage in the sub-basement of Biltmore House. Renee is in the process of evaluating the original hardware throughout the house and researching the original materials and appearances.

Call buttons from obsolete switchplates throughout Biltmore House

Call buttons from obsolete switchplates throughout Biltmore House.

Local Teen Inspires Pisgah Monument Restoration

Photo (left to right): Jack Leary, Rory Mullen, Owen Koppe, Moultrie Dangerfield, Levi Smith

An enterprising young man recently pioneered a project to preserve a piece of history that wasn’t necessarily forgotten, but just hidden.

This young man is Levi Smith. The West Asheville resident and Eagle Scout candidate completed work with fellow scouts to preserve a historic monument honoring Biltmore’s founder, George Vanderbilt, for establishing Pisgah National Forest. Vines and brush growing in that very forest had overtaken the monument to the point the plaque’s inscription was almost completely camouflaged.

Smith, a member of Troop 58 in West Asheville, discovered the monument near the Stony Fork Picnic Area on Pisgah Highway near the town of Candler on a hike up to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Also nearby is the entrance into the Forest, which at one time was also the entrance of Vanderbilt’s auto road to Mount Pisgah and Buckspring Lodge, his mountaintop retreat.

Upon reading the inscription on the monument’s bronze plaque, Smith decided such a piece of history needed to be spruced up so that hikers and passers-by would be able to learn about the surrounding forest. Pisgah National Forest, it describes, was dedicated to the memory of Vanderbilt who died in 1914. Vanderbilt’s widow, Edith Vanderbilt, sold more than 83,000 acres of Biltmore land to the federal government that same year, thus carrying out her late husband’s desire to establish it as a forest preserve.

Smith sent a proposal to William Cecil Jr., president and CEO of Biltmore (and the great-grandson of George Vanderbilt), asking for support and assistance with the project, which upon completion will serve as his Eagle Scout Service project. It’s the final step before Smith will receive the coveted rank of Eagle.

Biltmore made a donation to Smith for his project. In addition, Biltmore Landscape and Forest Historian Bill Alexander met with Smith and his mother, Robin Smith, to discuss the renovation and the area’s history. Smith also met with officials with the U. S. Forest Service who approved his project.

Kara Warren, Biltmore Preventive Conservation Specialist, was on hand when Smith and his fellow troop members started the work. She demonstrated how to properly clean and protect the bronze plaque to best preserve it for future generations.

The project also included landscaping around the monument, re-grading the Stony Fork Picnic Area parking lot, outlining it in timbers and re-graveling the area in order to ensure that it is a safe and attractive stopping point for those accessing the Parkway. Members of the Upper Hominy Fire Department also assisted in the project.

Biltmore’s archives contain a photograph taken on Oct. 28, 1920, when Pisgah National Forest was officially dedicated to Vanderbilt at a ceremony at the monument site. Edith Vanderbilt and her daughter, Cornelia, are in the photo, taken at the monument along with Governor of North Carolina Locke Craig and secretary of the Appalachian Park Association George S. Powell. 

The inscription reads:

Pisgah National Forest
This portion 83,398 acres was formerly PISGAH FOREST
Established by George W. Vanderbilt in 1891
and the earliest example of forestry on a
large scale on private lands in America
Acquired by the United States on
21 May 1914

Exploring George Vanderbilt’s Library

Even in Biltmore House, where so many rooms are filled with amazing collections of beautiful things, the Library still shines as a special place. George Vanderbilt was a remarkable man, and it’s fascinating to learn more about him through the creation of his magnificent and enduring library at Biltmore.

Learn more about George Vanderbilt’s tastes and interests with this look at some noteworthy books that form the Biltmore House Library collection.

When he was 12, George Vanderbilt began recording the names of each book he read in a journal, and he continued that habit throughout his life. If we look at any representative year, we get a sense of the breadth of his intellect. In 1899, Mr. Vanderbilt read a total of 51 books: 31 were novels, including The Two Magies and The Awkward Age by Henry James and Antonia or the Fall of Rome by Wilkie Collins. 

An up-close look at leather-bound books in the collection
An up-close look at leather-bound books in the collection

Most of the books George Vanderbilt collected were sent to one of the great bookbinders of the period, such as Riviere, Stikeman, Lortic, or David.  A few months later they would be returned beautifully bound in Moroccan leather, with gilt lettering and decoration, to be placed on the shelves of the Biltmore House Library.

By the time of his death, George Vanderbilt had collected more than 23,000 volumes. Approximately one-third of the volumes were antiquarian purchases, with the oldest appearing to be an Italian work published in 1561. The major strengths of the collection are 19th-century English and American literature, art and architecture; travel, philosophy and religion; history; and French fiction and non-fiction reflecting both his and his wife’s interest in France and their fluency in the French language.

Detailed look at a large bookpress in Library in Biltmore House

The Biltmore House Library contains a complete and important set of James Audubon’s The Birds of America and The Quadrapeds of America. The copies are unusual in that they are the smaller octavo edition, not the very large elephant folio edition so prized by print collectors. What makes Biltmore’s set particularly interesting is that they are bound with the original paper wrappers that accompanied each part as Audubon’s publisher issued them.

Another important work is Thomas McKenney and James Hall’s History of the Indian Tribes of North America. Our volumes are the original large folio edition and contain a full set of the original 120 hand-colored lithographs. Many of the original oil paintings by Charles Bird King from which these folio prints were taken were destroyed by a fire in the Smithsonian in 1865.

Biltmore’s Curatorial Team: Current Projects

Biltmore’s curatorial team oversees the research and interpretation of the historic collections, interiors, and history of Biltmore Estate, including managing room restoration projects, exhibitions, tours, and publications. The collections management team oversees the cataloging, documentation and preservation of Biltmore collection objects.

Above, we see artifacts used by Biltmore Dairy delivery men that Associate Collections Manager Lenore Hardin is cataloging. The items include an insulated porch box (for leaving fresh milk on the customer’s doorstep), a bottle carrier (for carrying  bottles to and from the truck), a stackable wire milk crate, and Biltmore Dairy milk bottles. 

Here are a few more of their current projects…

George Vanderbilt’s application to the New York chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution

While doing research, Curatorial Assistant Lori Garst found George Vanderbilt’s application to the New York chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution. His application was sponsored by his uncle Benjamin Kissam, the brother of his mother, Maria Louisa Kissam Vanderbilt.

 strips of wallpaper came from the bedroom of Mrs. King, Biltmore’s longtime housekeeper

From the desk of Biltmore’s Collections Manager, Laura Overbey: These strips of wallpaper came from the bedroom of Mrs. King, Biltmore’s longtime housekeeper. It’s one of the unrestored rooms guests can visit on the Behind-the-Scenes Guided Upstairs-Downstairs Tour.

a picture of little George Vanderbilt's sister Lila and little George and Lila as children in the 1860s

Curatorial Assistant Lori Garst has seen more Vanderbilt family photos than just about anyone. As part of her job cataloging the 9,000+ photos in Biltmore’s collection, she has learned to recognize family members by face. On her desk, a picture of George Vanderbilt’s sister Lila and little George and Lila as children in the 1860s.

Read our blogs on Biltmore’s Archival and Conservation team to see what other projects are underway at Biltmore.

Unusual Biltmore Jobs: Rosarian

You could say that Emily Wilson’s interest in plants runs in her family: the Georgia native attended Auburn University, graduating from the College of Agriculture with a horticulture degree in Landscape Design, following in the footsteps of her mother who also graduated from Auburn with the same degree.

Whether gardening or rock climbing, Emily enjoys a wide range of outdoor adventures. Before moving to Asheville, she worked as a climbing and backpacking guide in Laramie, Wyoming.

“You can imagine how much fun that was,” Emily said, “but I missed my family and working with plants, so I came back home to the South.”

Biltmore's Rose Garden and ConservatoryEmily joined Biltmore’s horticulture team in 2012 and rose to the role of Lead Gardener at the Inn on Biltmore Estate. “It’s a wonderful place to work because of the wonderful people who work there,” she said, “so when the opportunity arose to become the estate’s rosarian, it was really difficult for me to leave those folks at the inn.”

According to Emily, taking care of Biltmore’s Historic Rose Garden is a dynamic job. “As highly scrutinized, ornamental plants that have a lot of pest and disease pressure, it takes a considerable amount of care to keep roses looking their best,” Emily explained. “Plus, there are over 2,000 roses in the garden…that’s a lot of roses!”

Some of Emily’s basic rosarian responsibilities include managing insect and disease problems, managing soil quality and the plants’ nutrition and irrigation needs, assessing rose quality, ordering new roses, rose installation, pruning, deadheading, mulching, weeding (yes, even Biltmore gets the occasional weed!), and so much more.

Red roses in Biltmore's garden“We also host International Rose Trials,” said Emily. “Rose breeders from all over the world send their roses to us to be trialed. We plant these ‘newfangled’ roses and grow them for a few years. During this time judges come to assess their quality, and at the end of three years the best roses are given awards for excellence. The purpose of these trials is to find the most beautiful, disease resistant, quality roses that just about anyone can grow, and we hope it will allow rose gardening to seem accessible to everyone.”

Surprisingly, Emily used to think she didn’t much care for roses. “I don’t know—maybe it was the thorns or the notoriety,” she said, “but look at me now—I’m starry-eyed and rose-obsessed!”

Historic Hand-Colored Postcards

Each September, we turn our gardening attention to a friendly competition taking place in a corner of Biltmore’s Walled Garden. Here, a jury gathers in the historic Rose Garden to evaluate roses bred by professionals and beginners on fragrance, overall health and rigor, and ability to repeat bloom. It’s part of the Biltmore International Rose Trials, scheduled this year for September 28-29.

Rooted in our past

Roses are rooted in Biltmore’s past. The Rose Garden is original to the Walled Garden, and is thought to have been used to promote the estate when John and Cornelia Vanderbilt Cecil first opened the doors of Biltmore House for public tours in 1930.

From black-and-white to color

At that time Chauncey Beadle, a horticulturalist and the estate’s superintendent, worked with a postcard company to produce a set of 26 hand-colored postcards based on a series of black-and-white photographs taken by George Masa, known for his documentation of and preservation efforts for Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Because color photographic film was rare at the time, it was a popular practice to hand-color photographs and postcards.

Original photo of Biltmore’s Rose Garden by George Masa, c. 1930

Original photo of Biltmore’s Rose Garden and Conservatory; George Masa, c. 1930

Photo of Biltmore’s Rose Garden by Christopher Shane, 2011

Timeless images

During the first year of our International Rose Trials in 2011, local photographer Christopher Shane was on assignment for WNC Magazine and captured nearly the same angle of the Rose Garden at peak bloom that George Masa had shot 70 years earlier. Except for the English Ivy above and around the windows of the Conservatory, it could almost be a mirror image of Masa’s black-and-white photos.

Featured blog photo: One of 26 hand-colored postcards that Chauncey Beadle worked to have produced around 1930