White lilies for grief. Snowdrops for hope. Daisies for innocence. Red roses for love, yellow for friendship. We use flowers to send many different messages, on all manner of occasions; but what we say with flowers today is a pale shadow of the language of flowers employed in Victorian times.
Though an ancient practice, attaching meanings to flowers probably reached the zenith of its expression in the books of the mid-nineteenth century printed in England, France, and the United States. What had started as simply applying connotations – a feeling, a broad concept – had, by Queen Victoria’s reign, blossomed into a complex system of messaging that could convey a surprising amount of information in the arrangement of a bouquet. Systems of floriography were quite popular in the English-speaking world for at least fifty years before fading around the turn of the twentieth century.
The Language of Flowers Collection consists of over 170 books held by Mann Library and was the gracious gift of Isabel Zucker ’26, who acquired them over a lifetime of collecting. Many books in the collection are beautifully illustrated with hand-colored or chromolithograph plates. Most of the individual volumes can be viewed online through Cornell University Library Digital Collections and as part of an extensive collection assembled at the Biodiversity Heritage LIbrary.
As part of the "Verdant Views" series from the Cornell Botanic Gardens, exhibit curator Karl Rozyn and Mann Library's head of collections Michael Cook discussed the Victorian era language of flowers tradition with series host Kevin Moss in June 2022. A recording of the presentation is viewable at cornellbotanicgardens.org/verdant-views-written-in-petals.
Mann Library would like to extend a special thank you to everyone who contributed to this exhibit! Written in Petals came together through the collaborative curation of Mann Library outreach support specialist Daisy Wiley and exhibit curator Karl Rozyn. The text and images used for this exhibit were brought together via the careful assistance of retired Mann Library collection development and rare book librarian Linda Stewart.
We would also like to gratefully acknowledge the support of the Elizabeth (Betty) E. Rowley Fund for Mann Library, which made possible the preparation of this exhibit, both as a virtual installation and as a complementary physical display at Mann Library on the Cornell University campus in fall 2021.
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