A is for Artificial Flower Makers

A is for Artificial Flower Makers

One of the very few predominantly female occupations to appear consistently in urban and suburban census enumerators’ books throughout the period 1851-1901 is that of artificial flower maker, or artificial florist.  It is rare to find an urban enumerator’s book from the period which does not include at least one woman recording herself as an artificial flower maker, in most cases numerous women appear as such, despite the fact that making artificial flowers was generally a poorly paid and seasonal occupation. Artificial flowers were to be seen everywhere in Victorian Britain; it was not unusual for Hanson cabs to have a bunch in their windows,[1] and women’s clothing was regularly decorated with them.


Figure 1: Bonnet c1845 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Bonnets were adorned with masses of blooms and leaves, as were dresses and coats, giving a splash of colour to an otherwise plain garment. Even the working-classes had their bonnets trimmed with artificial flowers, which at as little as a penny a bunch, were affordable to many of those who were in the higher ranks of the working-classes.  As such, artifical flower making was a big business, and thousands of women were employed both in factories, and in their homes, making the little blooms for a few shillings a day.

In a time when many of the options for home-working involved time consuming, tedious and frequently dangerous work, artificial flower making was arguably one of better options open to women, and there was real potential, if working enough hours, for a woman to earn enough money to help to support her family.

When we talk about artificial flower makers, it is perhaps best to acknowledge that, for most of the working-class married women involved in the profession, it was more a case of artificial flower mounting – also known as ‘sticking and papering’, or ‘sticking and wiring’, than artificial flower making.  Like most piece work jobs of the time, much of the better paid, more highly skilled work, was carried out in the factories, the more basic ‘finishing’ work being the kind farmed out to the women working in their homes, with few women involved in creating the entire flower, or flower spray, most simply making the leaves, or the flowers, or putting together the sprays of flowers made by other women.

We can still read of the experiences of many of the women carrying out this work, for example:

‘Mrs A. therefore, as the family increased, took up the occupation of “sticking and papering”; that is to say she spent what spare time she could command in affixing little artificial green leaves to stalks of wire, and in winding around the wire strips of thing green paper. The leaves, thus provided with stalks, were packed together in dozens, and the payment for doing a gross varied from 1 ¾ d to 2 ½ d; the gross took about an hour. Mrs A. worked usually from 9.30 in the morning, to the same hour at night, less some two or three hours occupied by housework,  preparation of meals etc., and earned – when work was not slack – from 5/- to 7/6 a week.’[2]

Mrs A. lived in London with her husband, who also worked full time, and her four children. As well as somehow managing to work from early morning to late at night, working on average 72 hours a week, and covering some 3,360 stalks in those 72 hours, she also had to travel to the factory to collect her supplies for her work, and to take back to her employer, the stalks she had completed. At times she could send one of her children to enable her carry out her household chores – but all of this travelling across London also cost money and time. When her wages were combined with her husband’s, they barely covered the cost of the rent, which, when paid, left only 4/1 ½ a week per head for everything else that they required, their heating, food, clothing and household goods.  Clementina Black explains how this was totally inadequate and meant that hard working families were cast into even deeper poverty, despite the mother and the father working long hours.  Black describes in colourful, and emotionally laden terms how Mr and Mrs A. were a ‘model pair’, who didn’t marry early (she calculates them having married when Mrs A would have been in her late 20s), and how her children, although ‘pale and delicate’, were well-kept; ‘they had lost none’.[3]

Mrs A. is an example of a ‘sticker and paperer’ – Black also introduces us to the ‘sticker and mounter’ – the women who were provided with the flowers and leaves already prepared (by the likes of Mrs A.), and who then formed bunches of flowers (as seen on the bonnet illustrated above) for clothing and decoration. As with everything else in this form of work, there were high quality flowers prepared with the finest materials by skilled workers, and some, which Black notes, were arguably for the lower end of the market:

‘No. 2 presented the investigator with a specimen of her work, a poor flattened sample of execution. It consisted of leaves which, from their form, appear intended to represent rose leaves, but of which the colour, an unshaded emerald green, belongs to no rose leaf that ever grew. The leaves, made of a sort of calico and waxed are mounted in four groups, two or three leaves, one of five, and one of seven, and the wire stalks of these groups are then bound together with fine wire so that each spray seems to grow from a main stem. Each bunch thus comprises eighteen leaves, and for the making up a dozen branches the worker was paid 2d. For sprays of one rose, one bud, and three leaves, tied up in dozens, she was paid 3/9 a gross.”[4]

Through contemporary social surveys it is possible to get close to the women making the flowers, and to observe the conditions in which they were working.  It is also possible to see the ways in which their working conditions, and, arguably more importantly, wages changed over the decades as cheaper imports drove down prices and changing working patterns, such as the training of blind children to mount artificial flowers in institutions, created a situation where some home-working women were forced to work longer hours, for less money.

Of course, artificial florists were not alone in seeing their hours increase as their wages decreased, but their wages appear to have taken a particularly severe downward turn in the latter years of the nineteenth-century.  When comparing reports on the income and working conditions of these women in Booth’s study of the trades of the East End of London, published in 1893 with the work carried out by a team of social researchers led by Clementina Black c1905-1908, it is possible to see in graphic detail how fast, and how far, the women’s labour had been devalued. What is interesting to note is that in Black’s survey, some women suggest that their wages have plummeted, whereas others insist that either their piece rate has not changed, or, had dropped, but had recently improved again.[5]

In Booth’s survey we see that: ‘skilled hands, mounters, can earn 18s a week, and rose makers at home can earn over 20s’[6]  This clearly shows a how wages have dropped by the time Black carries out her survey (15 years later).

Artificial florists were everywhere – it was a job that a woman could do in her own home, with little experience, and which could supplement the household income, and if not actually raise the family out of poverty maybe at least ensure that the roof stayed over their heads for another week.

[1] C. Black, Married Women’s Work, (London, Virago, 1983), p. 35

[2] Black, p. 31

[3] Black, p.  33

[4] Black, p. 35

[5] Black, pp. 31-36

[6] C. Booth, Life and Labour of the people in London: The trades of East London, (London, Macmillan and Co, 1893), p. 294

10 comments on “A is for Artificial Flower Makers

  1. Sherry on

    It’s incredible how labor intensive it was to create products back then. It’s also incredible how hard these ladies worked. It almost makes me embarrassed by what I consider to be a “long day” at work.

    • 19thcenturyhistorian on

      You’re quite right, its one thing that has always really shocked me when doing my research – things that these days are created by machines in minutes and cost pennies to buy, then took hours and hours of back breaking work to produce for a few pence in payment to the maker. It really makes you realise quite how desperate these women were for work.

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