The giving and receiving of flowers has long been a delight for all. Consider an armful of roses, a trailing bunch of honeysuckle, or simply a child's tiny fistful of wildflowers. Now, just imagine how thrilling it was for a young Victorian woman to receive a posy of flowers -- a tussie-mussie -- that carried with it a romantic and secret message. Do flowers speak to us?
Literary works seem to answer, "Yes." In the children's book by Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, Alice was surprised to hear the tiger lilies speak. She asked, "And can all the flowers talk?" "As well as you can," answered the Tiger Lily, "and a great deal louder."
Even today, we have all been coaxed by the popular florist's phrase, "Say it with flowers." And, thus, we respond by using flowers to tell loved ones of our heartfelt love or sympathy, or to celebrate a joyful time. This practice of ascribing emotions to flowers is centuries old.
What are Tussie-Mussies, More Commonly Called "Talking Bouquets"?
Perhaps the best definition I found says that a tussie-mussie or word posy is a circular nosegay of flowers and herbs, tightly gathered and designed to carry a special message in the language of flowers. The actual meaning of tussie-mussie, sometimes spelled "tuzzy muzzy," has two parts. "Tuzzy" refers to an Old English word meaning a knot of flowers. "Muzzy" refers to the damp moss that was wrapped around the flower stems to keep them moist.
The Royal Horticultural Society of Great Britain records that the name tussie-mussie had its origin in the 15th century when flower bouquets were termed "tumose of flowrys or other herbys." Records from the 16th century show that Elizabethan tussie-mussies included thyme, lavender, marjoram, mints, balm, rosemary, and chamomile for their fresh fragrance, evidencing the belief that the herbs refreshed the head and stimulated the memory. It is interesting that judges of the day used them medicinally, carrying tussie-mussies into their courtroom to protect themselves against jail fever. Today, judges in England's highest court, the Old Bailey, celebrate this tradition by carrying tussie-mussies into court six times a year.
In Britain in the mid-17th century, small bunches of aromatic herbs were carried onto the streets to ward off the stench, odors, and bad air that had been widely believed to cause the plague.
It was during Victorian England in the mid- to late-19th century that tussie-mussies reached their peak of popularity as fashionable accessories. Victorians had a love of gardening, and cultured young ladies were required to study the growing, preserving, pressing, and arrangement of flowers. They spent time in the genteel occupation of drawing and painting floral subjects. As Victorians revived the age-old study of botany and its associations with mythology, religion, and medicine, they became fascinated with the early meanings of flowers. Study of legends, poetry, and especially Shakespearean literature yielded meanings associated with flowers, their scents and colors. Love, honesty, patience and virtue were attributes ascribed to individual types of flowers. Young women of the upper classes carefully studied these meanings, and it was commonplace, at the beginning of a courtship, for an admirer to combine a bouquet of flowers to deliver a message in the floral language of love. These bouquets became known as word posies or articulated nosegays. Young suitors searched floral dictionaries hoping to choose flowers that would send a specific message, and young women in turn hastened to decipher the hidden meanings and their lover's intent. An excellent example of a floral handbook is Language of Flowers, written and illustrated in 1884 by Kate Greenaway.
Tussie-mussies were also exchanged between friends of either sex, each flower having a different meaning. It was, however, most common for the fashionable, Victorian ladies to wear or carry them to social gatherings. Tussie-mussies were carried on morning walks and picnics, to afternoon teas, dinners, and dances. They were indispensable at weddings; Queen Victoria was seen carrying one to the opera in 1837. References relate that during the 19th century, wearing flowers was considered more suitable for young, unmarried women than was wearing jewelry.
The "mussie," originally referring to the damp moss that was wrapped around the flower stems to keep them moist, made the bouquets awkward and cumbersome. In spite of the damp moss, flowers did not last long during dining and dancing, this situation motivating jewelers to devise posy holders. Design of the holders became competitive; a wide variety of shapes and styles were offered, many quite ornate. Bosom bottles were tucked into the décolletage of a dress. Tiny holders could be worn at the waist, in the hair, or secured with a brooch. A silver-filigree posy holder with a ring attached was available, allowing the belle to hold the posy as she danced. Flower holders were also designed for men to wear in their buttonholes, or to be clipped to a lapel. Some cravat pins were designed with flower holders at one end. Tussie-mussie holders were like tiny works of art, detailed or simple, and fashioned in a great variety of materials. These are highly collectible today and can be found quite easily at varying prices -- a wonderful hobby unless you are already addicted to buttons!!
Inspired by the popularity of the actual tussie-mussie, Victorian button designers chose to portray the subject on buttons, also in a variety of styles and materials. You will be looking for floral bouquets or nosegays with or without a holder. Remember that the holders for these bouquets vary; they differ uniformly though from a standard vase that might be set on a table, in that they have a curved base. In button literature, many of these buttons are listed under the term "cornucopia." A cornucopia, however, suggests a Thanksgiving horn of plenty, generally filled with fruit. The tussie-mussie holder must be filled with flowers, not fruit. Look closely and you will begin to find great button examples!
Eckstein, E., J. and G. Firkens. Gentlemen's Dress Accessories
. Princes Risborough, Buck, UK: Shire Publications Ltd., 1987.
Kozak, Elanine. "Tussie-Mussie: Little Flower Elations." Victorian Journal
"The Language of Love." The Garden
, Royal Horticultural Society, July, 2002.
Laufer, Geraldine Adamich. Tussie-Mussies: the Victorian art of expressing yourself in the language of flowers
. New York: Workman Publishing, 1993.
Williams, Sue. "Tussie-mussies:Talking bouquets." The Master Gardener Images provided by Barbara Colvin and Beth Robin