By JEANNIE WILEY WOLF
FOSTORIA — Nothing says romance like a flower, so it’s hard to imagine that the beautiful bouquets brides carry down the aisle today evolved from a Victorian-era need to mask some very nasty odors.
“Why do brides carry wedding bouquets? There’s lots of different theories, but none of them are very romantic,” said Sue Gehring. “Actually, it was to cover the smell.”
A member of the Fostoria Garden Club, Gehring researched the tradition of wedding flowers through history and learned that back in the early Victorian era in London, living conditions were not very sanitary. Diseases like tuberculosis and smallpox were common.
“The main means of transportation was either by foot or horses. So as horses went through, of course you had to feed the horses. And when you feed horses you’ve got a mess on the roads,” she said.
Young boys were employed to scoop up the muck. “But by the time they got done it was messed up again, so they couldn’t keep up with it.”
Added to these squalid conditions was the fact that there were no trash haulers.
“They didn’t have anywhere to put their garbage, so they would just throw it out on the street,” Gehring said. “So if you went outside and walked around, there was this horrible smell.”
That period of time was referred to as “the big stink,” she said. To negate the malodor, women started making up tiny bouquets of fragrant blooms.
“They actually started planting gardens — a nosegay garden or a tussie mussie garden — and they would gather the flowers,” she said.
These arrangements also included herbs, even garlic — “Anything to cover the smell.” The women would tie these arrangements together and, as they walked outside, they’d smell the little tussie mussie to cover the reek.
As time went on and cities started getting indoor plumbing, bouquets of flowers became more of a fashion accessory.
“The ladies had these gardens already, so they would continue to make these bouquets of flowers,” said Gehring.
Young girls later began to use flowers as a secret language when they had gentleman callers.
“They would go to dances and they would meet a young man and he would ask permission to come and visit with them,” Gehring said, noting that the man often brought them flowers.
“They always had a chaperone with them. So these young kids, just like today, came up with their own language. They came up with a way where they could take these little bouquets that they had and, depending on the color, how they held it, they would sit and twirl it, that meant different things.”
The chaperone, however, had no idea what was happening. (“Just like today, I have no idea what my grandkids are saying,” Gehring laughed.) If, at the end of the visit, the girl turned the flowers upside down, it meant she wasn’t interested in another visit from the gentleman.
“And he would walk out brokenhearted,” she said. “That kind of started the whole romantic period.”
Gehring said bouquets became a popular wedding accessory after the nuptials of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1837.
“When she was 17, she met Prince Albert, who was her cousin. She had never met him before, and she was totally smitten by him,” she said.
Victoria actually proposed to Albert, she added.
Queen Victoria used orange blossoms, a favorite flower, to decorate her wedding dress. Her bouquet included myrtle.
“Our myrtle is that stuff that grows in the flower beds you can’t get rid of. Theirs is like a bush, a myrtle bush, and it has small white flowers on it,” Gehring said.
After the wedding, Queen Victoria had myrtle planted on the castle grounds. Those same bushes grow there today, Gehring said, and all of the royals who have gotten married since have had a sprig of that myrtle in their bouquets.
Kate Middleton also carried Sweet William, because she was marrying William, while Meghan Markle included forget-me-nots in memory of Lady Diana.
“Actually, Prince Harry went out and picked the myrtle and presented it to her and they had it put in her bouquet,” said Gehring. “So see? It all becomes very romantic.”
The Victorians also paid attention to the language of flowers: “Depending on the color and the type of flower, they mean different things,” she said.
A white rose signifies innocence, a red rose is for love and happiness, a pink rose means loveliness, and a yellow rose symbolizes friendship.
Similarly, a calla lily represents purity and faith, a gardenia stands for joy, a hydrangea represents honesty, heartfelt emotion, gratitude and understanding, and peonies stand for good fortune, honor, love and romance.
“It’s sad, but most brides today in the United States, they don’t think about the meaning of the flower,” she said. “They just go for their wedding colors and they don’t pay any attention to the symbolism.”
Gehring said the groom typically wears a boutonnière on his lapel to match the bride’s flowers. This traces back to the custom of a knight wearing his lady’s colors as a declaration of love, she said.
And the tradition of tossing the bouquet dates back to the Middle Ages.
“A bride was considered to be lucky on her wedding day, and all of her guests, all of her girlfriends, wanted to be just like her. Even if they could touch her, they believed that her luck would wear off on them,” Gehring said.
The girls actually tore off pieces of the bride’s clothing and pulled out strands of her hair, thinking it would bring them good luck and ward off evil spirits. That evolved into a custom of the bride tossing her bouquet into the crowd.
“What she would do was throw her bouquet at the girls and then she would run away, and they would all go for the flowers,” Gehring said.
Now the person who catches the bouquet is said to be the next one to wed, she said. “So it still means good luck.”