Corsets and Beer Wagons: Floral Vulgarities: 1891, 1904

Two ladies and funeral flower arrangements including a harp, a horseshoe and a stuffed dove.


Is It Not High Time to Call a Halt?

Beer Wagons and Corsets in Flowers

The Height of Horror Reached in “The Market Woman of Hamburg.”

Is it not time to cry a halt? Has not the attempted gilding of fine gold and painting the lily been carried far beyond the point of wasteful and ridiculous excess? These questions, surely, must strike any unprejudiced mind, any simple, natural, healthy, unperverted taste, in contemplation of the extreme lengths to which floral vulgarity and shoddyism have run. The writer verily believed that the end of the scale had been reached with such sacrilegious crudities as the “Gates Ajar,” but what can be thought of a “funeral piece” consisting of a beer wagon, laden with barrels and drawn by horses, all made of roses and smilax, with straw for the horses’ tails?

The Beer Wagon floral arrangement

The Beer Wagon floral arrangement

Going back a little, is not a flower a flower? What more can be made of it? In poetry and in popular language alike the idea of a flower implies the thought of the crown of perfection. Why, the very name, “corolla,” the botanical term for blossom, means a crown. Is it artistic, to say the least, to torture what is already perfect of its kind into a shape altogether foreign to its character and which it was never intended to take? There are still in our midst innumerable sweet, old-fashioned, childlike souls, who fondly believe that the Lord made flowers just the way he wanted them. These do not hesitate to say that his works ought to be handled with something akin to reverence.

The Gates Ajar funeral flowers

The Gates Ajar funeral flowers

It is a beautiful custom—one most certainly founded upon the purest and holiest instincts of human nature, one to which even the most degraded of our species must surely respond—to deck our dead and adorn their last resting-place with flowers. But why seek to do what the old rhetoricians called “improving the sublime?” The result is caricature, if nothing worse. Imagine the steps leading to the “Gates Ajar” (what mortal has any adequate conception of the gates of Paradise?) lettered in purple chenille! Think of a silent harp with the back made of tin-foil, or a sickle whose edge will not cut, or a pillow upon which no tired head could rest, or a broken column with the break smoothly “plastered”! Still worse are funeral wreaths made of dyed immortelles and aniline-colored grasses, or of stiff, monstrous china roses, or death-lie waxen ones mingled with tawdry, tinseled leaves.

If slaughtering birds for millinery purposes is sufficiently reprehensible to attract the notice of “Audubon Societies” and “Bird Defenders,” what must be thought of our present custom of mixing the bodies of white doves among our floral atrocities? Are we much better than the old barbarians who sacrificed animals at the death of their relatives or of persons of distinction? What has become of the beautiful, heart-cherished superstition, if you choose to call it so, that it is a sin to hurt a dove because it is an emblem of the Holy Ghost? Even if the sense of the fitness of things in many minds were not outraged by such use of a lovely bird, common sense should teach any one that killing an inoffensive creature will not make the departed dear one any happier in the other world.

Talk to an intelligent florist and you will find that he agrees with you. “Floral emblems are in bad taste, I know,” he admits. “Flowers cannot be made to look well in anything but the simplest designs, like a cross, a wreath or a basket. But what can we do? People want broken wheels and things like that; we must supply the demand for them or we’d starve. The worst of it is some people know that floral designs are generally signs of vulgar ostentation, but they feel that they cannot help themselves. They send a floral piece to a friend’s funeral because they’re afraid they’ll be thought mean if they don’t. Their hearts would prompt them to send simple clusters of cut flowers, but they fear that they’ll be misunderstood. To my mind the floral pieces are more funereal, more suggestive of death than death itself.

“Some people order floral pieces because they feel that they are getting a bigger show for their money. In a piece, poor flowers can be worked up to look better than they are. Cut flowers must be good specimens or their case is hopeless. There is no way of disguising their imperfections.

“I heard about the beer-wagon. It was sent to the funeral of a brewer. It had to be made, because the brewer’s employes wanted it. One might think that, in the presence of death, the brewer’s friends would want to forget that he had ever had anything to do with beer. If talking shop is commonly regarded as vulgar, what must be thought of the intrusion of the man’s business at his funeral?”

corset flowers

But monstrosity in floral design does not stop at funeral atrocities. It is reaching hideous lengths in grotesque festival and house decorations. At a recent “opening” of instrument of torture intended to distort the God-created, natural, womanly figure—a practice one step further in downward advance than the distortion of flowers, even if far more common-there was displayed a floral corset, upon a wire frame, etc., like the usual “emblem.” In place of the head for the model was a wreath of roses, ferns and smilax, with a dove looking out from the circle, for no earthly meaning or reason than what in the domain of language would be called bombast.”

The Market Woman of Hamburg arrangement

The Market Woman of Hamburg arrangement

But the climax was certainly reached at the last floral exhibit held in this city. The “Market Woman of Hamburg” was a conflagration, a nightmare of flaming horror. The outrageous caricature of the human form was sufficiently terrible—but the colors were simply indescribable. The hat was wreathed with gaudy yellows in either coreopsis or marigold, perhaps both. The skirt was one glare of scarlet geranium and pink bougainvillea. The face, arms and hands were in pink and white tinted hydrangeas. Horror of horrors, the eyes were black shoe buttons.

The monster carried real baskets filled with cucumbers and parsley, suspended form a stick yoke and it stood upon a square yard of red and yellow corollas, which told nothing but a pitiful story of how many poor plants had been ruthlessly robbed. We are not popularly supposed to be a nation of idolaters, but it is very certain that no heathen ever permitted a more abominable image to stand a day.

Although the florist quoted in the foregoing threw the blame of the perpetration of floral funeral monstrosities upon the people who ordered them to be made, it is not just possible that the florists themselves are more largely to blame in this matter than they would have it appear? But a judicious admixture of advice with their queries for instructions they might, did they choose, bring about a change that would be most wholesome. Of course they get much better prices for such horrors as have been referred to than they would for simple clusters of cut flowers, and they also have their hands filled with flowers that must be worked off somehow, and which are not salable, except when “made up” in set pieces. They might not be able at all times to control the demand for monstrosities, but they could discourage their perpetration, instead of aiding and abetting them as at present. At all events, it is certainly time to cry a halt, and no one can so well or so powerfully take the first step as the florists themselves.

San Francisco [CA] Chronicle 22 November 1891: p. 10

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Extravagance in mortuary floral arrangements was widely deplored in the press, but to little avail. For many years accounts of funerals still listed the arrangements and their donors. Some wealthy personages gave instructions for “N.F.” or “No Flowers” funerals, leaving the florists fearful for their businesses. But they need not have worried. It seems to be human nature to give flowers for the momentous occasions of life, even if those offerings are in dubious taste. For example:

On the occasion of the funeral of Judge Bross, of Cairo, Ill., the Eggeling Floral Company filled and shipped, on short notice, an order valued at $1,600, one of the largest orders ever sent out of St. Louis by a single firm. Nearly half an express car was needed to hold the pieces, many being of immense size. Among others was a beautiful “gates ajar.” 6×8 feet, made up almost entirely of Timothy Eaton chrysanthemums and Chatenay roses, and a column four feet high of white carnations and Bridesmaid roses, with a base made up of Sunrise roses. American Beauty roses and Asparagus Sprengeri were made into a large panel. American Florist, Vol. 21, 1904

The following designs show two early-20th century funeral designs. The first was a tribute from a bowling team and comes from The American Florist 8 August 1903. The second was a reminder: never send to know for whom the clock ticks; it ticks for thee. It is from Floral Designs: A guide in choosing and ordering flowers, 1902.

bowler funeral flowers American Florest Vol. 21 1904

clock floral display

Mrs Daffodil has previously written on funeral flowers here and there is a section on the subject in The Victorian Book of the Dead, available at various online book-shops.


In a similar, personalised vein–Mrs Daffodil is uncertain as to whether her readers will find it vulgar, the colours are certainly quite lovely–a memorial wreath for a wheelman. From Elemental Cremation and Burial.

cyclist's wreath

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

4 thoughts on “Corsets and Beer Wagons: Floral Vulgarities: 1891, 1904

  1. Pingback: “No Flowers”: 1891 | Mrs Daffodil Digresses

  2. Pingback: Bad Taste in Funeral Flowers: 1895-1914 | Mrs Daffodil Digresses

  3. Pingback: Bad Taste in Funeral Flowers: 1895-1914 – The Victorian Book of the Dead

  4. Pingback: No Flowers: 1891 – The Victorian Book of the Dead

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