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Floristry in 1930s Britain

Researcher Felicity Hall looks at the wider context of Constance Spry’s career in floristry in 1930s Britain:

What’s in a name?

The world of commercial floristry and floral decorations which Constance Spry entered in 1928, with the opening of her first shop in Belgrave Street, was a fairly recent one.  Although flowers had been used for decoration for hundreds of years, it was only in the nineteenth century that flower arrangements became something that could be bought, rather than an activity carried out by the lady of the house or her gardener using flowers from her own garden. The development of British imperial trade with Asia and the Americas from the seventeenth Century onwards had introduced an increasing variety of plants to gardeners at every level of society, which in turn fed into fashions for specific cut flowers. Over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, innovations in greenhouse design and the growth of the railways enabled the growth of wholesale flower and plant markets, and the building of Covent Garden’s Floral Hall in 1861. Demand for cut flowers for use in table decorations, bouquets and funeral arrangements were met by an increase in the number of commercial florists.

A shop assistant working in the South Audley Street shop in 1947. George Konig Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

The terms used for the people supplying both cut flowers, bouquets and arrangements had changed over time.  The term ‘florist’ was first used in 1623 to describe someone (invariably a man) who grew flowers recreationally for their beauty. ‘Florists’ flowers’ was a precise term used specifically to refer to carnations, tulips, anemones, ranunculus, auricula, pansies and dahlias which were often grown competitively.

Over time, ‘florist’ became more widely used to describe people who grew flowers for both recreational and commercial use. By 1822, the horticulturalist and writer J C Loudon, was describing two types of florist: those who grew fine flowers for decorative and competitive purposes, and market florists who grew flowers to cut and sell. By the middle part of the 19th century, as cut flower consumption increased, ‘florist’ was used solely to describe a commercial grower and seller of cut flowers. For the 1911 Census Florists were still categorised under the same occupational code as Nurserymen and Seedsman.

G W Finch’s headed paper from 1912 pictured identified him as a ‘Florist Decorator’ and ‘Floral Designer’.  The details on this document show that the scope of his business was more complex than the 1911 census category might suggest. As the Ministry of Labour’s 1921, Dictionary of Occupational Terms: Based on the Classification of Terms used in the Census of Population’ put it ‘Many industries are passing through a period of transition…In such cases…a single rigid and clear-cut definition is impossible’.  This was certainly true of floristry.

As G W Finch was able to provide ‘choice home-grown flowers’ from his nurseries, one could say he was a ‘Florist: flower grower’.  This was defined by 1921 as one who cultivated flowers to sell to customers or to the wholesale market, and was categorized as an Agricultural Occupation along with Gardeners, Nurserymen and Seedsman.

G W Finch Letterhead, 1912

However, as someone making up bouquets and funeral wreaths and providing services from a shop on Kilburn High Road, G W Finch could also come under the Commercial Classification as a Retail Florist.  These were retail shopkeepers selling cut flowers, plants, bulbs from a shop or stall, making up bouquets and funeral wreaths, employing assistants, decorating ballrooms, concert platforms and dining tables, and ‘often’ cultivating flowers in their own nursery garden.

‘Florist Decorator’ and ‘Floral Designer’ appear to be composite terms, and do not appear in the 1921 Occupational Dictionary.  However, Floral Decorators do appear, under the classification of Other and Undefined Workers. Unlike the other three definitions, Floral Decorators are not ascribed to any additional categories or subcategories, but their role is described as ‘decorating ball rooms, tables, churches, etc., with flowers, ferns, palms, etc., in various designs or colour schemes for special functions’.

Although Constance Spry wrote often about the importance of proper training and business skills in her writing for magazine and newspapers, her books were concerned with the creative and design opportunities afforded by working with flowers, rather than practical business advice.  Around the same time that her first book Flower Decoration was published, two other publications came out.  Both of these dealt with working with flowers but from very different perspectives from Flower Decoration.

The Practical Fruiterer and Florist

The Practical Fruiterer and Florist in three volumes was edited by W B Shearn, past President of the Retail Fruiterers and Florists’ Association. This organisation had its roots in the early twentieth century and was formed as a trade organisation that could lobby on behalf of the sector.  Many of its members were both greengrocers and florists but a number were retail florists only.The Florists Handbook was written by ‘Floriana’, the anonymous writer who provided occasional flower arranging advice in ‘The Nurseryman & Seedsman’.

This weekly trade journal provided horticultural advice and industry news for growers, wholesalers and florists.  Both The Practical Fruiterer and Florist and The Florists Handbook, from the 1930s focused on floristry as a retail activity.  Both provided practical advice for new and experienced florists on how to run a floristry business with information about employment law, advertising, shop windows and the sourcing of flowers and plants from market, rather than growing them in one’s own nursery.

The Florist's Handbook title page

According to The Florists Handbook ‘The work of a florist falls naturally into two distinct spheres, namely, the sale and display of flowers in a shop, and the technical skill entailed in floral designing.’ While in the words of The Practical Fruiterer and Florist of these two parts:

‘The first of these accounts for the cut flower business and calls for no particular skill or training other than the ability to judge the quality of flowers, a proper appreciation of colour and the art of arranging the bloom so as to display it to best advantage and give it as much sales appeal as possible. The other part, however, is more exacting, since it deals with floristry proper, i.e., the making of floral designs, carrying out of floral decorations, and the performance of all that wide range of work connected with flowers which comes into the category of “Floral Art.”’

With her creative focus on flowers as decorations for public and domestic interiors, and as personal decorations in the form of wedding bouquets, Constance Spry provided a vital place within the wider floristry trade.  By placing the creative emphasis on the flower itself rather than relying on tradition, or what she referred to as sentiment, her aesthetic provided inspiration for the floristry trade as well as amateur flower arrangers. Following her death in 1960, the monthly trade journal ‘The Florist’ wrote that ‘the world of flowers has suffered a grievous loss by the passing of Constance Spry’, and went on to list the many commercial florists and organisations that paid their respects by sending floral tributes to her funeral.