Coronavirus (COVID-19) has ravaged the globe killing more than a 100 000 people and infecting over two million. We do not leave our homes without wearing a face mask and surgical gloves. During the Victorian era gloves and a hat were common accessories for men and women when they went outside but to ward off disease and the plague they often wore a nosegay or tussie-mussie.
There were many deadly diseases such as cholera, typhoid, small pox etc., and a lack of basic sanitation and hygiene exacerbated the spread of these diseases. Urbanisation due to the industrial revolution placed a huge burden on the growing cities – especially London. In his book, ‘Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth’ Lee Jackson describes streets filled with horse dung and household rubbish.
It was believed that bad smells caused disease. For the Victorians it was obvious; in poor districts, the air was foul and the death rate high and in the prosperous suburbs, no smells – therefore no disease. This belief was shared by renowned Victorian nurse Florence Nightingale (1820-1910). The persistent cholera epidemics between 1832 and 1853 only reinforced these beliefs. It took Dr John Snow (1813-1858, an English physician who is considered to be one of the founders of modern epidemiology) years to persuade the establishment that cholera was a water-borne disease and had nothing to do with bad smells.
Small bouquets, either hand- held or worn on clothing, date back to medieval times. This became a widespread practice in the 15th century as plague spread throughout England and Europe. These fragrant flower bundles were called nosegays. Translated, the Middle English word for nose still means nose, and the word “gay” meant ornament. Nosegays were held close to the nose, or worn as a brooch, a hair ornament, or tied around the waist. Both men and women wore or carried certain flowers and herbs to ward off disease. During the Victorian era tussie-mussies were carried close to the nose to ward off the stench in the streets and the plague and were composed primarily of scented herbs such as rosemary, thyme, and rue. The small tapered metal vase that holds small bouquets is now sometimes called a tussie-mussie, as are the fragrant flowers in the vase.
The term tussy mussy, or tussie-mussie, dates to the time of Queen Victoria, who reigned in England from 1837 to 1901. The queen was fond of carrying these floral bouquets wherever she went. The tapered vase was made up of a small cup, or repoussé. They were very ornate, made of English ivory, gold, silver and silver plate – some even decorated with precious stones. Many had a chain with a ring attached to the handle. This ring could be attached to a lady’s chatelaine (a hook in a lady’s waistband) or worn on her finger while she danced. Some of the more elaborate pieces had a spring- loaded handle that expanded into a tripod, which allowed the piece to be set on a table. An example similar to the one described here forms part of the National Museum’s textile collection.
The Victorians also turned flower- giving into an art. The popular modern expression “say it with flowers” probably originates from this custom. It was common practice at the beginning of a relationship for the gentleman to give the lady a tussie-mussie. Floriography (language of flowers) brought a new dimension to the tussie-mussie.
Often these floral gifts were sent to members of the opposite sex. Courtship during the era followed strict protocols, at least among the upper class. Unmarried men and women weren’t allowed in the same room or to go on a date without a chaperone. “Dating” was taking tea in the drawing room with the family, which understandably inhibited the conversation and any romantic gestures. Thus the tussie-mussie did the talking. When you gave your intended a rose tussie-mussie the message was “I love you.” If she sent one back with a yellow rose she was only interested in friendship. But if your tussie-mussie came back with a coral rose, the message was desire.
Dozens of floral dictionaries were published listing the meanings of each flower and herb. The symbolic meanings were adapted from classical mythology, religious symbolism and ancient lore. Some plants have kept their symbolic meanings through the years. These include:
Rosemary – Remembrance;
Ivy – Fidelity
Lilies – Purity
Rose – Love.
Basil – Best Wishes
Red geranium – Comfort, Health
Hydrangea – Devotion
Sage – Wisdom
By the early 19th century, wearing fresh flowers had become an important element of fashion, but the custom had disappeared by 1900. Today the tussie-mussie survives as a popular wedding accessory. Even Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle chose to carry a bridal bouquet in the style of a tussie-mussie. The modern version of the bridal bouquet was first popularised by Queen Victoria, who carried a tussie-mussie filled with moss and orange blossom at her wedding to Prince Albert in 1840. Her bouquet also included myrtle – known as the herb of love. Following the ceremony, Victoria planted a myrtle shrub in her garden at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. Ever since then, all British royal brides have included in their wedding bouquets a sprig plucked from the same myrtle shrub.
In 2018 Meghan Markle’s bouquet was designed by florist Philippa Craddock, and contained several flowers that Prince Harry handpicked from their private garden at Kensington Palace the day before the wedding. The bouquet included white Forget-Me-Nots, (his mother Princess Diana’s favourite), scented sweet peas, lily of the valley (representing sweetness and purity, which was also part of Kate Middleton’s bridal bouquet), astilbe, jasmine, astrantia, and, of course, sprigs of myrtle.
Callaway, N. Tussy Mussy Wedding Bouquets. https://www.thespruce.com/what-is-tussy-mussy-3489494.
Halleman, C. See the First Photos of Meghan Markle’s Bouquet. https://www.townandcountrymag.com.
Jackson, L. 2014. Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth. Yale University Press. London.
Laufer, G.A. Victorian Tussie Mussie. https://www.motherearthliving.com/garden-projects./tussie-mussie.