Whereas: Stories from the People’s House

Carnation Nation

Glimpses of the Opening Days of Congress (detail)/tiles/non-collection/8/8-29-messanger-2011_089_003_cropped.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
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On opening day, nothing was more fun than a floral horseshoe with “Good Luck” in carnations.
It was the opening day of Congress, and all the popular men had flowers on their desks. “Floral tributes,” enormous congratulatory bouquets, made their way into the House Chamber on the first day of each session of Congress from the 1870s until 1905. Pages and messengers staggered in with vase after vase. The best-loved Representatives preened and puffed their chests out at the many bouquets they received, and wags wondered if Representatives sent flowers to themselves. Some desks vanished completely under the mounded blooms.

The custom of presenting flowers on opening day dated back at least to the 1870s. How did Congress become part of carnation nation? It took a combination of industrial advancements and Gilded Age sentimentality. Florists first became a big business when enterprising growers took advantage of the Victorian craze for marking every occasion with flowers. An efficient and dependable railroad system made it possible to transport flowers quickly, in and out of season. At first, the bouquets were modest. Alexander Stephens of Georgia received a nosegay of buds small enough that he affixed it to his wheelchair in 1879. Things soon took a turn toward the excessive. In 1881, four elaborate arrangements adorned the Speaker’s table, and in 1886, a dozen Members received giant floral horseshoes. The offering to Congressman James Campbell of Ohio, however, bucked the trend. Someone sent him the same number of flowers as the reported margin by which he won his seat—two!

The Fifty-Third Congress – Speaker Crisp Calling the House to Order (detail)/tiles/non-collection/8/8-29-speaker-2007_345_009_cropped.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Even Speaker Charles Crisp received flowers on the first day of Congress.
Posies and sprays showed up on opening days for decades, but in 1894, at the opening of the 3rd session of the 53rd Congress (1893–1895), fans of Congressmen outdid themselves. On December 3, a cheer went up. Four men entered the Chamber. They carried on their shoulders a floral schoolhouse, which was placed on the desk of William Linton of Michigan, an education advocate. The floral tribute was made of “immortelles,” or dried flowers, and was fully four feet long. A tiny flag fluttered from the blue cupola, and “Our Public Schools” was spelled out on the red walls. Former Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed of Maine received an even more stupendous floral tribute that day in 1896. On his desk, a magnificent fully rigged ship rode at anchor on an ocean of roses and ferns, with “’96” on the deck, an allusion to Reed’s presidential ambitions.

Although those two arrangements may have marked the apogee (or nadir) of the florist’s art, the tradition of over-the-top bouquets went on for another decade before Speaker Joe Cannon of Illinois banned them in 1905, as disruptive to the proceedings. Newspapers, which had reported on the popularity contest since the 1870s, were dismayed that the tradition was ending. There would no longer be the hubbub on an otherwise uneventful day, with Pages teetering under their blooming burden, and the ever-present possibility of overturning an urn of flowers onto an unsuspecting Representative.

Sources: Julia Berrall, A History of Flower Arrangement (New York: Viking Press, 1953); A Centennial History of the American Florist (Topeka, KS: Florists’ Review Enterprises, 1997).