Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Textiles as Cultural Expressions: Proceedings of the 11th Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, September 24–27, 2008, Honolulu, Hawaii


Copyright 2008 by the author.


The Secret Flower Language, Women and Expression

In the romantic minds of the Victorian’s with their interest in medieval chivalry and sentimental symbolism, an obligation to social etiquette caused extreme censorship of what was considered appropriate conversation. This combination created a society that utilized and applied symbolic meanings of objects to express what otherwise could not be spoken. The Victorians followed upon the interest in botany and the natural world developed by the educated and leisure classes of England in the mid-18th century. They continued this interest, which developed into a fascination with the study of horticulture, botany and gardening. The increased importation of exotic plants and flowers along with a renewed interest in 16th century herbals created an overall appreciation for flowers in society, which additionally became a common subject in Victorian artwork.

Beginning in the 18th century, rumors spread across Europe of a secret flower language being practiced in Turkey. This is largely a result of the letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who, while writing home to England from the Turkish Embassy, discussed “a mysterious language of love and gallantry”. In a letter to a friend, she described the use of objects to communicate, calling it a “Turkish love letter”. She wrote of this language:

“There is no colour, no flower, no weed, no fruit, herb, pebble, or feather that has not a verse belonging to it: and you may quarrel, reproach, or send letters of passion, friendship, or civility, or even of news, without ever inking your fingers”. Over the course of the century, the rumors became interest, and then practice. Until, by the early 19th century, the development of a formalized Language of Flowers had occurred. This took the form of a dictionary of symbolic meanings assigned to individual flowers, which thus became generally known to society as a method of silent communication.