Making Flowers for Gorgeous Easter Bonnets
By John Mathews
The door flew back suddenly—and I stood in the midst of an artificial-flower garden. The air was filled with a song and the voices were those of women. About me on long tables were heaps of half-finished blossoms. Around the tables sat the flower-girls, singing, as their fingers flew rapidly over bits of colored cloth. Roses and daisies and violets were blooming by the hundreds; leaves were unfolding, green branches were growing before my very eyes. And the flowers which were being produced in this atmosphere of song were Easter blossoms, the most brilliant and the most conspicuous of all that are seen on that beautiful holiday, for they were the flowers of the wonderful Easter bonnet .
And this was the busiest season in the big New York flower factory, which produces every year hundreds of bushels of the artificial floral gems. I saw at once that the making of flowers has become an art, for by the cunning combination of muslins and silks, velvets and satins, with amazingly delicate tints, a picture is made of the real rose or the real violet or daisy—a picture that, while it is only an imitation, possesses beauty in itself, just as a landscape, while only a copy, has much of the charm of that from which its inspiration comes. Here was a most unusual situation in this flower garden. If the flowers had been real, and the place where they bloomed a garden, instead of a big, dingy room, it would have been only natural for the gardeners to be gayly singing. But for factory workers to be making music as they toil is a thing not often known.
I have heard of great cigar factories in Florida where an orchestra plays to lift the spirits of the men while their backs are bent in labor. And I have heard, too, of other factories where the women who are employed are cowed and suppressed and not permitted, on pain of fine, to speak to each other excepting in a low tone of voice. But here was a factory where the workers were allowed and even urged to sing. And it seemed a particularly appropriate combination — the song and the flowers for the Easter time. A dozen of the girls were singing in strong, clear voices a popular air, one of the sort that lend themselves to notes long-drawn-out. The chorus ran something like this:
There are eyes of blue,
There are brown eyes too,
There are eyes of every size and eyes of every hue.
But if you are wise,
You’ll take my advice,
And be careful of the maiden with the dre-a-my eyes.
There was no weariness, no doleful note, in the song, for it bore the joy which it, also gave. And while they sang the women worked the faster, their fingers performing the routine to which they were accustomed, while their spirits, no doubt, floated away very pleasantly on the wings of the music. Not only is there a humanitarian, but a practical business purpose, as well, in this musical accompaniment to the daily toil of the factory. Men and women both work best when they are most happy and contented. If the girls in this flower factory were not finding relief from the drudgery of their work in song they would be talking, and when they grew emphatic or their conversation became descriptive, these persons, being women, might frequently illustrate what they said with motions of their hands; and hands thus employed would not be making flowers. There would be more gestures than blossoms. But as they sing, their hands never stop. Thus these girls and women become happier and more efficient at the same time, for there is great power in music.
In the centre of this scene of industry and song stood a tall, graceful young woman who is of first importance in this story because it is she who makes the first designs of the blossoms, and also conducts the department which finishes them.
The manufacture of artificial flowers is one of the great industries. Formerly the best flowers and the largest quantities came from abroad, the most beautiful and costly from Paris, the cheaper grades from Germany and Austria. Millions of artificial flowers are still brought from Europe for the American woman’s hat, but the American factories are growing fast, and are becoming rivals of those of France in the perfection of their product.
The smallest varieties of flowers, the forget-me-nots, for instance, are seldom made here. They can be bought more cheaply in Germany, for there they are manufactured at small cost by women in the prisons, girls in convents, and even by school children after school hours. This labor is cheaper than any that can be found in America. But they make the roses, daisies, geraniums, violets, pansies, and all of the others in the largest and best factories of the United States. And some of the copies of these bright gems of the floral world are so skillfully and artistically made that one hesitates before deciding that the artificial is not, after all, a real flower.
The tall young woman, designer of the blossoms and captain of the flower-girls, showed me exactly how a rose was made, a great pink French rose of delicate tint, growing deeper toward the centre.
“Beginning with the petals,” she said, separating a large rose into its parts, “you will see that each is a single bit of muslin—a sort of three-cornered piece, you will notice. The outer petals are the largest, and they decrease in size as they near the centre of the flower.”
She spread the pink pieces out on the table before her. There were forty-eight of them.
“I determine the size of the petals from the real rose,” she said, “pulling out its petals and then copying them on to a pattern. From this pattern a stamp is made. It is like a pinking iron, or a chisel. You hit it on the end with a heavy hammer and drive it through the cloth.”
On the top floor of the factory two strong men were carving out the flowers with these tools. The stamps were driven with each blow of the hammer through several thicknesses of cloth, cutting out the rose petals, or daisy blossoms, or poppy blooms. Before the flowers are stamped out the cloth is first starched in preparation. It is stretched on perpendicular frames and the starch is applied with a brush. When it has dried the cloth is placed before the two men who handle the blacksmith’s hammers.
Then the different parts are colored, and this, as well as the designing of the shape of the flowers, is all-important. In the coloring room are huge bowls and pots filled with coloring matter, for many hundreds of tints are mixed and used in a single factory. A rose petal is pink at the outer edges and light green around the part where it adheres to the flower head. The petals are dipped by hand, first into the green coloring fluid, which contains alcohol to “set” it, and then into the pink color when the green has dried. And there is a great steam-heated drying room where the parts of flowers are put on shelves in trays to dry. The rose petals are then sent to the flower room, which is presided over by Miss Essie Hoar, the designer of flowers in this factory of David Spero.
The petals are put between sheets of thick blotting paper which are moistened. They are taken out of this to be crimped and rounded, for you know there are many curves and swells in each little rose petal. The shaping of the petals is done while they are still damp. A pair of small hot pincers is used to make the convolutions in the surface of each petal. To give the flowers their proper curve and form, a large number of little machines are employed. They are operated by girls and supplied with heat by gas jets, so that while the flower is pressed it is dried and held in shape by the starch which it contains. The rose petals are now ready to be placed on the head of the stem.
Here, again, deftness and skill are required. A cluster of starched threads with tips of a yellow composition is imported from Germany. These threads become the stamens and pistil of the rose. Miss Hoar took the cluster of threads, fastened it to the end of a wire stem, and then began to place the petals around it, dipping the end of each of them in glue. And her fingers moved very rapidly and the rose grew fast, each petal assuming its proper place and position. In less than a minute it was a gorgeous, full-blown flower. Then its stem had to be put on.
Rose stems are made of small hollow tubes of stiffened muslin stained green and cut in the factory to the length desired. But the thorns of the artificial rose are of soft little rubber tips which are put on with glue at regular intervals along the stem. This hollow green tube is slipped over the wire about which the rose blossom grew, and is held there by glue. A tiny green, hollow cup is placed under the head of the flower, the stem being pulled through it. The leaves are fastened to the stem, and the rose is a rose indeed.
The flower factories in the United States buy most of their material from abroad. The stems of various sizes come in coils like rope and are called tubing. The leaves, already stained green, are brought to the United States in boxes, but in the flower factory they must be put on their stems and the veins put in them by a stamping machine. The petals of many flowers are two-colored, the top being of one shade and the under side of another. This fact presents another problem in flower-making. The cloth for such flowers must be painted before the petals are stamped out. The muslin is hung in frames and then one side is painted the tint desired. When that is dry the brush is used on the opposite side with another color, and then the cloth is laid before the stamping iron.
Some one from the flower factory goes every year to Paris. His eyes follow the hats of the women as he sees them on the fashionable boulevards, in the cafés, or at the theatres. And he writes home describing the flowers that he has seen on these hats. The factory at once begins making these flowers with might and main, for it is an absolute certainty that the flowers worn on hats in Paris will a little later be worn on hats in American cities. There are flowers, however, which are in steady demand for several years together. One of these, designed by Miss Hoar, was a velvet daisy of dark red, lustrous hue. Of these 150,000,000 were sold in two years.
1917 hat decorated with grapes and leaves
During some seasons cherries are worn on hats; sometimes grapes adorn the feminine bonnets. And the making of this artificial fruit becomes a part of the industry of the flower factory. When grapes are in vogue an entire glass-blowing establishment may be employed to supply the large flower-maker with the little, thin, glass balls which form the body of the grape or cherry. This glass fruit is then dipped in coloring matter and, if it is a grape, is sprinkled, also, with potato flour before the color is dry. This gives the velvet effect of the real fruit, so that the artificial grape is one of the most luscious-looking creations imaginable.
Frank Leslies Weekly 16 April 1903
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: A fascinating look at a pretty trade and how delightful that the flower-makers are encouraged to lift their young voices in song!
It grieves Mrs Daffodil to undermine this charming picture of embowered maidens, but what the author does not mention is that the green of the leaves and stems was Scheele’s Green–an arsenical green also known as Paris Green–which, although known to make the complexion pale and interesting, was slowly poisoning these young women. Given the insouciant view of many factory owners, one shudders to think what other hell-brews were used in the making of these lovely objects.
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.