Tuesday 7 October 2014

A Salon Guest... Flowers in the House: A History by Kathryn Kane

It is my pleasure to welcome Kathryn Kane today with a fabulous post on the history of flowers in the home.


As a play on the title of my debut Regency romance novel, Deflowering Daisy, I wove a number of snippets of floral history throughout the story. Naturally, with the majority of the tale taking place in the summer, there are floral arrangements in the house where the heroine and her hero spend time with one another. Yet, those flower arrangements probably barely register with most readers of today, since, in modern times, many of us take flowers in the house for granted. Today, at the invitation of Madame Gilfurt, I would like to provide a brief overview of the history of flowers in the house over the long eighteenth century and into the Regency. 

Archaeologists have discovered flowers in a number of interiors as far back as Ancient Egypt. The upper classes among both the Ancient Greeks and Romans are known to have used flowers, herbs and other plants to adorn the interiors of their homes. However, these plants were used for more than their visual beauty by the ancients. They also appreciated their fragrance, and believed that those fragrances had the power to protect the inhabitants of the rooms in which they were used by warding off evils spirits. In most cases, the petals and leaves of flowers and herbs chosen for their specific powers were scattered over couches, beds and often floors as well. Very seldom were cut flowers assembled into bouquets in these ancient abodes. Rather, wreaths were the most popular form of floral decor after the use of loose leaves and petals. 

The Greek and Roman practice of strewing flower petals and herb leaves around a room continued through the Middle Ages across Europe. However, the practice was limited to the households of those with wealth and position, and was typically used when guests were present. Carpeting, as we know it today, was unknown in medieval Europe. In the majority of homes, even those of the most wealthy, floors were covered with straw or rushes. The straw absorbed and hid much of the soil which accumulated in the course of everyday living. In most large households, the used straw was swept out and replaced with fresh straw every couple of weeks. To limit any unpleasant odor, freshly laid straw was often strewn with flowers and herbs. It was also common practice to scatter herb leaves or sprigs, petals and even full blooms of flowers on the dining table during a grand banquet. Oftentimes, they were slightly crushed, to better ensure the release of their fragrance during meal. The popularity of flower motifs on tablecloths, even in modern times, probably has its roots in this ancient practice. Wreaths and garlands were also used, but as with loose plant materials, were intended to freshen the air and protect the spaces where they were placed. 

It was not until the seventeenth century that cut flowers began to appear in pots and other vessels in the homes of the upper classes. This was due in large part to the fact that improved technology in the making of various vessels had not only increased their physical size, but also their volume of production, as prices gradually fell. Thus, affluent households could afford vessels beyond those required for cooking and serving meals. Metal, ceramic, and even a few glass, bowls and vases were available into which bunches of cut flowers could be placed. Nevertheless, there was little effort made to arrange these bouquets, since they were still used primarily as a means by which to ward off noxious odors which were believe to carry disease. For most of the century, the flowers which were used in these early vessels were chosen most often for their fragrance and/or their purported ability to ward off evil than they were for their appearance. Paintings and written records of the period show that the selected flowers were crammed into any available vessel, with little or no attempt to arrange them. No one saw the point at that time, since their appearance, even as a combined bouquet, was secondary to their powerful, protective scent and their supposed magical properties. Even if elegant floral arrangements were wanted, it would have been difficult to accomplish with the majority of the flowers available at that time. Most of them had short, thin stems which could not properly support the blossoms to which they were attached. Shoving a great many flowers into a single vessel kept them all relatively erect as they supported one another. 

As the seventeenth century drew to a close, the Age of Enlightenment was just dawning. Superstitions and belief in magic was gradually supplanted by rational and critical thinking. Flowers were less often believed to have magical properties, but their physical beauty was becoming increasingly admired and appreciated. The number and types of flowers to which this appreciation was directed were also expanding. Botany had become a popular science and there were many amateur and professional botanists and gardeners who were breeding plants to produce larger and more attractive blooms. In the process, the stems of many of these flowers became longer and stronger, thereby making it possible to create striking floral arrangements. Each blossom was fully supported by its stem, so it was no longer necessary to stuff a vase full of flowers to create a coherent and self-supporting bouquet. The longer and stronger stems of these new flowers made it possible for them to remain where they were placed in a vase or other vessel. Wet sand was often used to hold flower stems in place early in the century. However, by mid-century a number of devices, usually of ceramic or glass, were made to be placed within vases and pots to enable the creation of elegant flower arrangements. 

During the eighteenth century, several new and improved breeds of flowers were developed which had a wider array of new and brighter colors. Today, flowers are available in nearly every color of the rainbow, so it is difficult for those of us in the twenty-first century to understand how dramatic and even startling some of these new flower colors appeared to those who first saw them in the eighteenth century. Even more so when many of them were placed together in an elegant vase. In addition, the use of glasshouses made it possible for those who could afford it to display these beautiful flowers completely out of season. In some circles, it became a competition to see who could have displays of the most flowers which should only be in bloom at some other season of the year. 

Another important technological breakthrough of the early eighteenth century had a significant impact on the evolution of the use of flowers in the homes of the affluent and fashionable. In 1708, the first European hard-paste porcelain was developed in Meissen, in Germany. Called "white gold" for the exorbitant prices it could command, Meissen porcelain became a highly-desired and fashionable luxury item and remained so for most of the century. Remarkably strong for all of its appearance of delicacy, this pale, lustrous porcelain could be fired at very high temperatures. Thus, it could be decorated with a number of glazes which would yield deep, rich colors against the pale body of the vessel. Within a few decades, the Meissen craftsmen had learned to make large vessels of porcelain which would not shatter or loose any detail during firing. It became the height of fashion to have one, or more, large porcelain vases in which were displayed large arrangements of beautiful flowers whose colors contrasted or complemented the colors of the glaze on the vases which contained them. Such sophisticated and elegant arrangements were most often displayed in the public rooms of an upper-class household, to impress visitors with the wealth and taste of the family. 

However, as the Age of Enlightenment progressed, science and man's power over nature was seen to be steadily increasing. Therefore, the fashion was to display items which were not of nature, but mimicked nature, made by the superior hand of man. The flowers displayed in upper-class homes were one of the victims of this attitude. By the last few decades of the eighteenth century, natural fresh flowers were considered déclassé. Instead, flowers made of silk, straw, paper or even glass, were much more admired than those which had flowered under the sun in the garden. These artificial flowers were more likely to be seen on display in the homes of the upper classes than were the real thing as the eighteenth century drew to a close. Silk flowers were especially popular and the silk flower industry, centered primarily in Paris, employed thousands of women from the latter years of the eighteenth century well into the nineteenth. Straw and paper flowers were made in many European countries during that time, also employing mostly women. However, the making of glass flowers was a complex and dangerous process and was done only by men. Glass flowers were known to have been made in Italy, France and in parts of England. 

The fashionable trend for artificial flowers was reversed, in 1797, by one of the most ruthless and Machiavellian men of the age, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord. At the time, Talleyrand was serving as Foreign Minister to the Directoire government of France. He was planning a grand dinner in honor of the Turkish ambassador, with whose country France badly needed to maintain their alliance. Talleyrand was seeking any way by which to impress the ambassador. He ordered that all the public rooms in the house where the dinner was to take place be decorated with arrangements of only fresh flowers. He even ordered that fresh flower arrangements be placed on the dining table, something which was seldom done at that time. By all reports, the dinner was a success, but Talleyrand's gesture had even more far-reaching effects than he intended. It quickly became more acceptable to decorate with fresh flower arrangements. This attitude was further enhanced by the burgeoning Romantic philosophy which revered nature over science. By the turn of the nineteenth century, arrangements of real, fresh flowers were once again considered the most fashionable form of floral decoration. This view of fresh flowers continued right through the Regency period. 

Therefore, the arrangements of real flowers which appear in my debut Regency romance, Deflowering Daisy, are historically accurate, since by that time, real flowers were once again in fashion. Since the story takes place during the summer, there are many flowers in bloom so none of the flowers in the story are from glasshouses. They are all flowers which have bloomed in season, including the grand arrangement on which centers one of the more important aspects of the story. During this period, real flower arrangements were used primarily for visual decoration, not to ward off disease or malevolent spirits. Nevertheless, many of these flowers were quite fragrant and their scent added a lovely freshness to the air in the rooms in which they were placed. In addition, wreaths and garlands were also used for decoration during the Regency, most often for balls and other special social events, but most of them were also made of fresh flowers. 

If you would like more information about my Regency romance, Deflowering Daisy, please visit my website at http://kathrynkane.net/

This post copyright © Kathryn Kane, 2014. 


Helena P. Schrader said...

Wonderful insight into a topic of importance to historical novelists who care about details in setting. Did you find any reference to flowers in decoration in Sparta? Most ancient Greeks painted the interiors of their dark houses that had almost no access to light due to being built on narrow allies cramed inside walled cities. The Spartans were dispised by the other Greeks for not decorating their homes, but I have a theory that the big sprawling mansions of the Spartan elite (the kleroi of the Spartiates) were in fact decorated with flowers and fruits and other natural (but perishable) things. Its a long story, so I won't try to produce the evidence here, just wondering if you ran across any mention of Ancient Sparta.

Catherine Curzon said...

Kathryn has provided the following reply; technical shenanigans mean that I am posting it on her behalf!

My research was primarily focused on the long eighteenth century and the Regency, but I like to offer a bit of pre-history for articles like this to help readers understand the long view. I read a few general articles and books which included a very high-level view of the use of flowers and plants in ancient times. Unfortunately, Sparta was not mentioned specifically.

Based on what I do know of Sparta, I think you are probably right, they would have used flowers and fruits in their homes. However, if their attitudes were similar to those of the rest of the Greeks at that time, it was more about the various powers and properties which those plant materials were believed to have, rather than for their appearance. I am sorry I cannot provide more information.

Stephen Barker said...

The Geffrye Museum in London has had appropriate plants/flowers included in it's displays of period rooms from Sixteenth Century to the present day. In 2007-8 the Museum held a 2 part exhibition called Home and Garden covering 1675 to 2006 using contemporary art works to examine domestic interiors and gardens. The 2 books that accompanied the exhibition are available in the Museum shop. I would recommend them to anyone interested in domestic interiors.

Catherine Curzon said...

Thank you; I haven't visited the Geffrye Museum in far too long.

Catherine Curzon said...

Kathryn replies:

Thank you for bringing this very interesting museum to my attention. I have not heard of it before and will be putting it on my list of places to see the next chance I have to go to England.