How to Choose Church Flowers (in the 1800s)

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Example of baptismal font decoration

As W.A. Barrett wrote in 1868, decorating with flowers “is almost instinctive in human nature” [1] and in the 19th century, church floral design became a heated topic of discussion. Authors regretted what they viewed as contemporary laxity, acknowledging that “In old times men took more pains to do honour to the great events of life than we do now” [2]. To them, giving care to church decoration fulfilled St. Jerome’s idea that “a pious mind devoted to Christ is intent upon things great and small”[3].

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An arch design that could be adapted to fit many churches

Getting design right began with making sure that the decorations would send the right message.   Introducing flowers into churches incited fears from parishioners who saw it as a worrying innovation. Conservative Church members viewed it as part of the “gradual and insidious return of superstitious practices” [4] and having “heathen origin” [5]. However, the author of Practical Hints on Church Floral Decoration by a Lady reassures readers that floral decorations were “used by Pagans, because it was a custom dictated by good taste and religious feeling” [6]. Potentially to ease these fears, writers urged church decorators to use flowers sparingly, and only when necessary.

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This sample for a screen makes more use of painted boards than flowers

All of the handbooks warn against using flowers injudiciously; as E.W. Godwin writes, “It cannot be too strongly urged…that floral decoration may be, and too often is, used in excess.” What would be a better alternative? “[C]oloured fabric, banners, applique work, and painted cloths or boards–limiting the use of flowers to places where vases might stand–would be better in every way” [8]. Authors offered examples and images of suggested decorations that take this advice in stride, with flowers and garlands alongside other decorations.

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These plates offered readers ideas of how to decorate following the architectural designs of their church

To these nineteenth-century writers, church decorators could either employ the inelegant naturalistic style or the more effective architectural style.  One describes naturalist design as “stick[ing] sprigs of holly into the corners of all the pews, [so that]…when the occupants of the corners lean back to listen…they find their heads stabbed by the strong sharp thorns”  [9]. The Architectural school, on the other hand, “makes the floral decoration relative to the architectural features of the building” [10].  As oneargues, this mirrors the work of Gothic architects and artisans who “applied to the permanent decoration of their buildings, foliage and flowers, carved in stone, and often painted to imitate…natural flowers” [11]. Authors promoting architecturally-minded design offered sample images of how decorators could  best complement common Church architectural features, including reredos, screens, altars, and fonts [12].

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An example of intentional design: taking into account the available and appropriate plants for a harvest celebration

Designing with the liturgical calendar and physical space in mind was meant to create an atmosphere that drew churchgoers to the message of the Gospel. In his handbook, one author rails against “the absence of thought in all the so-called decorations of the present day” and observes that “perhaps there never was a time when buildings of all kinds had so much ‘ornament’ and so little meaning’ [13]. In the 19th century, floral design was meant to elevate parishioners’ experiences in church.

Although these design choices were considered the height of pious sophistication, all trends come and go. In the 1930s, The Warham Guild published a handbook lamenting that “to stand flower vases directly on the altar is a nineteenth-century innovation in the Church of England, and everything should be done to discourage this practice” [14].

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[1] Barrett, W.A. Flowers and Festivalsor Directions for the Floral Decoration of Churches. London: Rivingtons, 1868. p. 3.
[2] Cutts, Edward L. An Essay on the Christmas Decoration of Churches. London: Horace Cox, 1868. p. 1.
[3] Cutts  2
[4] Cutts  18
[5] Practical Hints on Church Floral Decorations by a Lady. London: J. Dascers, 1858?. p. 1.
[6] Practical Hints…by a Lady. p. 1-2.
[7]-[8] Godwin, E.W. A Handbook for Floral Decoration for Churches. London: J. Masters & Son, 1865. p. 3.
[9]-[11] Cutts 16
[12] See Barrett appendices
[13] Godwin 11
[14] The Warham Guild Handbook. London: A.R. Mowbray & Co, 1963. p. 82.

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