Berghahn Books Logo

berghahn New York · Oxford

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Youtube
  • Instagram

The Emotional Language of Flowers

The following is an excerpt from Ute Frevert’s “The Emotional Language of Flowers,” a chapter found in FEELINGS MATERIALIZED: Emotions, Bodies, and Things in Germany, 1500–1950, edited by Derek Hillard, Heikki Lempa, and Russell Spinney. Learn more about the book here.

Statistics tell us that the average German currently spends more than one hundred Euros per year on flowers and flowerpots. A fifth of this sum usually goes into bouquets bought for Mother’s Day, and a growing percentage for Valentine’s Day. The national flower industry is thriving, and so are florists, who buy from both national and international markets. Florists also invented the slogan “say it with flowers” (Lasst Blumen sprechen), which an online idiomatic dictionary translates into “express your feelings by giving flowers” (Bringt eure Gefühle zum Ausdruck, indem ihr Blumen schenkt). The slogan is communicated through various media: postcards, gift cards, and, increasingly, the Internet. Numerous websites inform inexperienced consumers about which emotions should be expressed through which and how many flowers. Color plays an important role and can make all the difference.

Flowers seem to “speak” an emotional language, or, to be more precise, are supposed to and forced to “speak” it. Emotions are embodied, represented, and expressed by roses and daffodils, violets and chrysanthemums, lilies and carnations. Compared with all other goods, flowers appear to convey emotional messages in the most direct manner, and when used as gifts, they define a specific, emotion-based relationship between giver and receiver. Even beyond gift cultures, they are said to communicate feelings, moods, and sentiments, as articles of fashion, as decorative objects in private and public spaces, or as ornaments in paintings.

To apply Clifford Geertz’s terms, flowers might thus be theorized as symbols that “give meaning, that is, objective conceptual form” to emotions. They can do this in two ways: by offering a model of reality and “shaping themselves to it,” and/or by constituting a model for reality, which entails shaping “real” emotions to be like or as flowers. The chapter predominantly focuses on the first aspect (i.e., on flowers as symbols of emotions). But it also invites an exploration of the manner in which flowers have themselves molded and modeled emotions in given contexts—by privileging certain emotions over others, or by highlighting positive feelings in political actions that might otherwise have raised negative emotions and violent reactions. In this regard, flowers can themselves exercise agency: they mobilize emotions in social relationships, and thus actively influence or even transform those relations.

Such transformative power can be studied on several levels: in private, intimate relations as well as in politics or at the workplace. Starting around 1800 in Europe, flowers were increasingly used to emotionalize people’s interactions and communication. In an age that dramatically changed how individuals conceived of themselves and their relations with others, flowers served as a gift or an accessory of positive emotional value. Emotions, so to speak, became visible, tradable, and negotiable through the language of flowers that, for these very purposes, invited and enabled a multitude of social practices. Some of them will be analyzed in this chapter. It first focuses on the role flowers played in political communication, as party emblems or gifts sending emotional messages from giver to receiver, adorning the latter with a warm humane glow. Flowers thus served to emotionalize and personalize politics in the modern era of mass political participation. Second, flowers also intensified emotional communication in the private sphere, among friends and lovers. They were supposed to communicate a set of positive feelings, and they did so in a language that had to be taught and learned. Consequently, special genre and advice books proliferated during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. At the same time, the production and consumption of flowers grew at an exponential rate that was further fostered by the invention and commodification of highly emotionalized holidays, like Mother’s Day or St. Valentine’s Day. The latter point, thirdly, to the gendered structure of flower-centered practices. In most cases, men bought and gave flowers to women, not the other way around. This was facilitated by the common assumption that women bore a certain resemblance to flowers, and vice versa. As much as the modern age worked toward drawing clear lines of distinction between men and women, masculinity and femininity, it also enlisted flowers to both confirm and romanticize the distinction.

Ute Frevert, “The Emotional Language of Flowers,” FEELINGS MATERIALIZED: Emotions, Bodies, and Things in Germany, 1500–1950. Eds. Derek Hillard, Heikki Lempa, and Russell Spinney. Berghahn Books, 2020. 202–203.

Emotions, Bodies, and Things in Germany, 1500–1950
Edited by Derek Hillard, Heikki Lempa, and Russell Spinney
Vol. 21, Spektrum Series

Of the many innovative approaches to emerge during the twenty-first century, one of the most productive has been the interdisciplinary nexus of theories and methodologies broadly defined as “the study of emotions.” While this conceptual toolkit has generated significant insights, it has overwhelmingly focused on emotions as linguistic and semantic phenomena. This edited volume looks instead to the material aspects of emotion in German culture, encompassing the body, literature, photography, aesthetics, and a variety of other themes.

Read Introduction.