To-day, Mrs Daffodil (since she cannot exactly say that she is “pleased to welcome”) once again yields the floor to that funereal person over at Haunted Ohio, Chris Woodyard. One supposes it is useless to suggest a change of climate, subject, or temperament to a writer so entrenched in the subfusc world of Victorian mourning, but Mrs Daffodil will gently note that a holiday in some sunny Mediterranean country might be cheering. Mrs Woodyard will address the history of grave concerns over grotesqueries in funeral flowers.
Flowers are an appropriate symbol for the excesses of the Victorian funeral. Newspapers documenting large funerals would note the details of these sometimes bizarre floral arrangements and their donors as if keeping score and setting a societal standard for the next bereaved family. The florists claimed that floral excess was a result of customer demand; the public, in turn, said that the pressure arose from over-zealous florists. There were also dark whispers about innocent flowers being tortured into strange and unnatural shapes.
Some trade journals made an effort to stem the tide of truly hideous design by publishing the damning details of floral tributes that they felt were beyond the pale. A Chicago correspondent to The Garden minced no words about current trends:
Here, in America, is the home of the grotesque as well as of the picturesque. Aristocracy and democracy jostle each other, and aristocracy gets the worst of it. We had a bad boiler explosion here lately, and among the emblems sent to a victim’s funeral was a floral clock set for the hour of the explosion! A theatrical treasurers’club sent a floral pass, ‘Admit one.’ Let us hope it was recognised. Gates ajar, open windows with plaster doves thereon, and tawdry wire frames showing through pillows of red and yellow flowers, all tend to vulgarise funerals, and to inspire the words ‘no flowers.’ When the city council is inaugurated, then are the florists busy. Gigantic keys, Indian clubs, desks, chairs, all are on hand, all of natural flowers distorted to suit perverted tastes. We need a renaissance in art to strike the florists here, and strike them hard. The Garden 1 June 1901: p. 385
Funeral “set pieces” generally fell into several categories: wreaths, pillows, and sprays—and, said the critics, monstrosities. Some of the latter had evocative titles and florist supply catalogues carried wire frames to create the more elaborate arrangements such as “Faith, Hope, and Charity,” (an anchor, cross, and heart) “The Sad Hour” (a floral clock); “The Broken Wheel,” “The Harp,” (or lyre) and “Gates Ajar,” an exceptionally popular design. Stuffed doves, often used to accessorize the “Gates Ajar” arrangements, could be purchased or leased.
For this next story of a client who desired a floral horse’s head with real glass eyes, I’m afraid I do not have an illustration. Perhaps these rather ghastly arrangements for deceased members of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks will give an idea of what the ultimate effect might have been.
A short time ago a certain prominent and popular business man of Cleveland died after a short illness. A day or two prior to his demise one of his business associates went into a florist’s establishment and made some inquiries concerning funeral flowers, and finally placed an order that to his mind embodied all the desirable attributes of such a piece of work. It was to be emblematic of the business in which the deceased had been engaged, and it had occurred to the would-be purchaser that nothing could better represent that idea, than a floral horse’s head! But being a far-seeing business man, accustomed to keeping his eagle eye on the dim and uncertain future, and knowing that such a novel and original design might present some difficulties to a florist when it came to working out the idea, he had thought it best to take time by the forelock and get things moving in good season! The unhappy florist dodged the issue as long as possible by suggesting that the man might get well, but without success. The businessman knew what he wanted and pretty nearly when he wanted it and so the florist had to go ahead with the monstrosity. It seems to me that for downright grim, ghastly, provident, cold-blooded unsentimentality this party is entitled to the pie foundry. But about the time that a sufficient quantity of black cloth had been laid in, and whilst the florist was racking his brain to obtain a life-like wire frame and fiery and spirited glass eyes to go with the same, the order was changed for something not quite so startling. Possibly the man of unique ideas was sat upon by his colleagues. The American Florist 8 June 1895: p. 1148
The employees of the Postum Cereal Company did not have far to look to find inspiration for a floral tribute for the company founder:
Among the set pieces [at the funeral of Charles W. Post] none attracted more attention or expressed more sincere love than the floral piece given by the employes of the Postum Cereal Company. This is the piece we mentioned first, and which is shown here. The design was made to represent the little barn in which he first began making his food products in 1895. This little white building was carefully cherished by its late owner, and still stands in the beautiful grounds surrounding the Postum Cereal Company’s administration building and general offices at Battle Creek, and is always pointed out to visitors as the place where the business began. Doubtless many of our readers have visited the Postum plant and have seen this little building. The floral design was an especially difficult one to bring out because of the demands of perspective. The piece was made by S.W. Coggan, florist, Battle Creek. It measured 6x5x2 feet, and in its construction 2,285 flowers were used. The background was dark pink carnations; the barn proper white carnations. The outlines and roof were of forget-me-nots; the frame effect of American Beauties, adiantum and asparagus green. Corners of frame over roof, Easter lilies, lilies of the valley and pink Killarney roses. The piece bore the inscription, “From his Employes”
The American Florist, Vol. 42 23 May 1914: p. 936
This “bag-man’s” traveling valise was railed against in 1903, yet was still being included in the pages of funeral flower albums in 1914.
Freak Floral Designs
As an example of how not to do it, the accompanying illustration of a floral traveling bag may be worth a place. The design from which the photograph was taken was made by the Iowa Floral Co., Des Moines, for some local traveling men and gave great satisfaction. The body was of Enchantress carnations, the ribs on top and ends of Lawson, while the handle was of violets.
When an order of this kind comes along it has to be filled, but such freak things are in every way to be deprecated. They are a good deal of trouble to make and use a lot of stock lessening the retailers’ profit unless a very big price is paid. But as to anything pretty or artistic there is absolutely nothing in them. It is not even possible to see a good flower in the whole thing for the carnations are cut short and stemmed and packed just as thickly as possible together. It is devoid of all beauty and no retailers with a sense of the artistic or the uplifting of the trade at heart will encourage the making of such flat, ugly and unprofitable things. As hinted above retailers have not always the last word on such points but the making of this class of goods should be discouraged as far as possible. How much more satisfactory in every way would a pretty wreath or other design be than this, supposing the same amount of money was spent. This kind of “art” is best left to the candy makers and confectioners. It is unworthy the attention of florists.
The American Florist: A weekly journal for the trade, 23 January 1909: p. 1290
The demand for special funeral emblems applicable to the vocation of the deceased oftimes taxes the inventive genius of the florist, and some of the pieces suggested by the surviving friends frequently seem very ridiculous. A butcher in our vicinity, being in condition for a funeral, one of his intimate friends came to order a floral offering and insisted on its being in the form of a cleaver. It occurred to me that such an implement was hardly the proper thing. But no one could tell the road he went or the conditions he would encounter at the end of his route. Perhaps it was the very thing he would need.
A commercial traveler having been assigned a new territory, in the unknown world, I was asked to make a floral grip for his funeral ornamentation, by some of his friends. Did he die of the grip, I asked. Oh, no! but as his satchel was his constant companion, one said, we thought it would be a very appropriate emblem for this sad occasion. Alright, I replied, it shall be made, but will I fill it with light underwear, or do you think something heavier would be needed? Not knowing his destination, they failed to advise, so as a precaution, the man being an acquaintance of mine, I filled the grip with wet moss, which you know has a very cooling effect.
American Florist, Volume 21 1903
And how I wish I had a photograph of this postmaster’s novel floral tribute. Truly something for the dead-letter office!
A Novel Floral Design.
P.R. Quinlan & Co., Syracuse, N.Y., made a novel floral piece, the gift of the employes of the Syracuse post office in memory of Edwin H. Maynard, assistant postmaster. It was a 4-foot panel 24×42 inches containing a canceled envelope. The stamp was in pale colored Lawsons and the cancellation which bore the date of his death was in small blue chenille lettering. Upon the floral letter where the address is usually placed was the inscription, “To our beloved assistant postmaster.” The outline of the envelope was maroon carnations representing the envelope in mourning. The groundwork of the panel was Enchantress carnations trimmed with roses, lilies and swainsona. A.J.B.
The American Florist 30 June 1905: p. 1044
1914 seems to have been a particularly fertile year for bad taste in funeral flowers. Here are a few unusually elaborate specimens:
Fraternal orders, trade unions, and vocational groups often clubbed together to provide floral tributes with the appropriate theme.
I cannot read the lettering on the floral chair above–it looks as though someone draped foliage and moss over an actual swiveling office chair and wired on a stuffed dove. Possibly the writing says “Our Mayor?” or “Our Mary?” Another in the “floral chair” genre was labeled “The Vacant Seat.”
Garish as these arrangements are, they pale by comparison with this last example, a floral tribute to a man whose life was cut short in a terrible accident.
THE PENULTIMATE DESIGN.
In the collection of unique designs, the one shown in the illustration on page 11 is entitled to a place at the front. It represents a derrick in flowers made by Lester F. Benson, an Indianapolis florist, on the order of a committee representing the Structural Iron Workers of America, for one of their members who was killed as a result of his gauntlet catching on the hook as the engine started. The man was lifted thirty feet from the ground before his cry, “Slack down,” was heard, and before the order could be obeyed the glove slipped from his hand, resulting in a fall which broke his neck. The design was made sectionally, to work the same as a real derrick, and the committee insisted on the florist placing a glove on the hook!
Of course no florist maintains that such a design is in anything but the most execrable taste; such gruesomeness is an utter perversion of the idea which prompts the sending of flowers to a funeral. The flowers should carry a message of sympathy, and by their purity and beauty should speak of the life beyond, should contain no suggestion of mundane things, least of all a reference to the route of departure of “the late lamented.” The derrick design appears to be just one step removed from the limit. The man who wishes to accomplish the ultimate no doubt will make for a murder victim some such design as the following: Take two clothing-store wire dummies; fit them out with suits of flowers, instead of cloth; raise the arms of each, one figure leaning forward in the act of firing a flower pistol; bring the left hand of the other toward where a man’s heart is supposed to be, and the right hand to his uplifted head; lean this figure backward. Mount the two figures, in the relationship that will suggest itself, on a base of boxwood or galax and there will be nothing further that can be demanded of the florist, unless with such a design the widow fails to survive the shock.
For the florist who makes monstrosities in flowers it is to be said: Hardly any florist has so poor a conception of the uses of flowers that he suggests any such designs; the florist nearly always simply is carrying out the instructions he receives from his customers, and must either do this or see an order involving a goodly sum go to a competitor. Florists are like others—they are likely to do that which they are best paid for doing, but it is in line for every florist to do something toward turning customers to better things in flowers.
The Weekly Florists’ Review 20 April 1911: p. 10
So much for the customer always being right…
Still, one suspects that, despite the florists’ repeated and bitter condemnation of bad taste, there was money to be made by catering to the vulgar whims of the customer.
These set-piece shaped floral arrangements began falling out of favor around the time of the First World War when Victorian mourning conventions were thought to be less relevant in the face of so many deaths. Immense and garish floral tributes still had their place—at the funerals of gangsters and film stars, but by the mid-1920s they were considered thoroughly old-fashioned. The only pieces I’ve seen recently which seem to carry on the tradition of shaped floral tributes are U.S. flag panels and floral rosaries designed to hang inside the casket lid. I have not had the opportunity to ask any modern florists if they ever get requests for flower lyres or for “Gates Ajar,” but in this Age of Individualism, I suspect that there are still orders for the unorthodox and highly personalized funeral arrangement, sans the stuffed doves.
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil is sure that we are all very grateful to Mrs Woodyard for revealing these examples of vulgarity in funeral flowers, thus enabling us to avoid embarrassing faux pas at our own obsequies.
For more on funeral flowers, see these posts: “No Flowers” and Corsets and Beer Wagons: Floral Vulgarities, which also appear in The Victorian Book of the Dead.
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.
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.