Victorian Flower Cryptography

Everything has a history. Even the simple act of handing someone a flower. In Victorian times, flowers had symbolic meanings. Giving someone red roses conveyed a message of romantic love. If the roses were yellow, however, the message was an accusation: You’ve been unfaithful!

Today, with a few exceptions—like red roses on Valentine’s Day—people select flowers without regard to symbolism. Rather, they choose freely for practical or personal reasons: What’s in season? What corsage will look good with the dress? What smells heavenly? What makes a nice cut flower? What will bloom all summer and repel mosquitoes, squash bugs, and tomato worms? (Hint: Go with marigolds on that one.)

cover of Language of Flowers, a Victorian flower dictionary by Kate Greenaway
Many flower dictionaries appeared, offering a guide to the symbolism of different blooms

It was different in England and the United States in the nineteenth century. Floriography—the language of flowers—was a means of cryptological communication, a secret code that carried a message from the donor to the recipient. Many cultures attribute symbolic meanings to flowers, but the Victorians went all out on this. At its height, floriography inspired writers to produce dozens of magazine articles on the topic as well as scores of books including floral poetry collections and dictionaries listing meanings for both flowers and herbs. Some of these books are still available, including Language of Flowers by Kate Greenaway (1846-1901), an English writer and illustrator, whose work appeared in children’s books and on greeting cards and bookplates.

Page from Language of Flowers, a Victorian flower dictionary by Kate Greenaway

Inevitably, there were disagreements among floriography authors on what certain flowers symbolized. It made me wonder if someone handing over a bouquet needed to provide an explanatory note citing their sources in order to avoid ambiguity in the message. Another problem developed when florists realized that flowers with negative meanings were not big sellers. No one wanted to risk giving someone a gift of beautiful, expensive flowers only to find out they stood for an unflattering trait. This led to the invention of inoffensive “new meanings.” You’d be hard pressed now to find any florist or nursery that will tell you that dahlias were thought to represent instability and lobelia symbolized malevolence.

It’s actually a little distressing to think about the message a Victorian-era visitor might get from what I’ve planted at home. My lilacs represent the first expression of love, peonies symbolize a happy marriage, and the Rose-of-Sharon—those tall bushes that sprout like weeds and are covered in pink, white, and lavender blooms—mean you are consumed by love. All good. But the pots along my front walk hold geraniums and petunias which the Victorians associated with stupidity and anger. And I could only pray that they would overlook the dill, a symbol of lust.

Bouquet of red roses, the symbol of romantic love

Thankfully, I don’t have to worry about the symbolism of my garden. I’ve happily learned some of the Victorian definitions, and just as happily thrown them overboard. And yet … my heart still turns over when my true love brings me red roses.

Early Morning Editing

I had a lovely start to the morning. What made it so? My partner/best friend/true love/lawfully-wedded companion knew I was going to spend the day editing so made BLTs for breakfast. Let me say that again, in case it didn’t sink in. He made BLTs. For breakfast.

BLT on a plate served for breakfast to author Bette Bono

I am now ready to dive back into the editing comments from my wonderful publisher, All Things That Matter Press. I am actually looking forward to the hours ahead wrestling with concepts such as the serial comma, introductory adverbial phrases, phrasal adjectives, supplementary or parenthetical dependent clauses, parentheses and em dashes, suspension points versus ellipses, and aesthetic considerations regarding punctuation and font (yes, this is a real thing) as addressed in the Chicago Manual of Style. Life is good.

I know. Some of you are laughing. Some of you are rolling your eyes. But I am pretty much serious about this. Language is a structure. A structure as ingenious and baffling and complicated as the most advanced computer or telescope or rocket ship to Mars. It is also a structure that grows and changes, modified through time by millions and millions of users.

Should rules about language be simpler? What artist or craftsperson would choose simpler tools or fewer options? Would a painter opt for fewer colors? Would a photographer elect to use a primitive camera? Would any person devoted to a creative enterprise willingly accept less precision? I think not. But enough philosophy. Back to work.

The history of the Chicago Manual of Style—a history dating back to 1891—is on their website at https://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/help-tools/about.html.

1933

I’ve been spending a lot of time in 1933. Not literally. Unlike my fictional characters, I am not a time traveler. But I’ve been reading about the Great Depression and FDR’s rise to the presidency. As always, when I dive into history, I am fascinated by the complicated interplay of events—both monumental and mundane—that form the mosaic of an era.

When FDR was inaugurated on March 4, the nation was in crisis. Thousands of banks had failed and unemployment was at 25 percent. Roosevelt’s brilliant speech called for broad executive power to combat the Great Depression and declared “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Speaking on that day, at that moment, on that topic, those words brought hope to millions. Looking back, we know that new fears–and global war–would require FDR’s continuing leadership and courage.

FDR delivers his first inaugural address declaring "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
FDR delivers his first inaugural address on March 4, 1933

Here’s a sampling of what else was going on in 1933:

On January 5, construction begins on the Golden Gate Bridge. On January 30, just over a month before FDR’s inauguration, Hitler is appointed Chancellor of Germany. It is also the date of the first radio broadcast of The Lone Ranger. In February, the Reichstag is set afire. Hitler uses this as an excuse to arrest opponents without charges, dissolve political organizations, and limit the press. On February 21, Nina Simone is born.

Hitler's speech following passage of the Enabling Act which gives him absolute power
Hitler becomes a dictator following passage of the Enabling Act

A lot happens in March. On the 2nd, King Kong premieres. On March 3, Mount Rushmore is dedicated. On the 4th, FDR is inaugurated. He declares a “bank holiday” on March 5. On March 7, the board game Monopoly appears. On March 9, Congress begins working with FDR on the legislation of the “first hundred days.” The first fireside chat is delivered on March 12. Two days later, Quincy Jones is born. The next day Ruth Bader Ginsburg is born. On March 20, the first Nazi concentration camp, Dachau, is completed. On March 23, the Reichstag passes the Enabling Act giving Adolf Hitler absolute power. Albert Einstein renounces his German citizenship on March 28. The month ends with the establishment of the Civilian Conservation Corps on March 31.

Hitler outlaws trade unions on May 2. On May 10, book burnings are carried out throughout Germany. In Chicago, the “Century of Progress” World’s Fair opens on May 27. Mussolini’s air marshal, Italo Balbo, arrives at the fair in July with 24 flying boats that land on Lake Michigan. He receives an enthusiastic welcome. In October, the Graf Zeppelin bearing a Nazi swastika on its tail circles over the fair grounds and the city of Chicago.

On June 6 the first drive-in movie theater opens in New Jersey. In October, Germany withdraws from the League of Nations, and the New York Giants defeat the Washington Senators in the World Series. In November, Fiorello La Guardia is elected mayor of New York City. Prohibition is repealed on December 5.

What are people reading? William Butler Yeats, H.G. Wells, Virginia Woolf, Dashiell Hammett, Dorothy Sayers, Gertrude Stein, Erle Stanley Gardner, and Agatha Christie all publish books in 1933. The 9th and 10th Nancy Drews appear. What are people listening to? Ethel Waters, Duke Ellington, and Bing Crosby have hit songs at the top of the charts.  

Jonathan Alter’s book The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope offers a compelling look at Roosevelt’s first months as president and his role in creating “a new notion of social obligation, especially in a crisis.” You can read more about Jonathan Alter and his other books at https://jonathanalter.com/

The Angels of All Angels

If you wander through the light-filled sculpture court of the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you may come upon angels.

The sculpture court in front of the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

There they are, on the right side of the courtyard. Look up and you’ll see one blowing a trumpet.

Carved angel from all angels church located atop pulpit on display in Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City

Walk forward and you’ll see a line of them surrounding a giant limestone pulpit. They are all rather busy swinging censers, strewing flowers, and playing musical instruments. One holds a scale and a sword. Maybe she’s assigned to mete out justice. Several are talking, or singing perhaps.

Carved angels on the All Angels pulpit created by the sculptor Karl Bitter

The pulpit is the work of the Austrian-born sculptor Karl Bitter who immigrated to the United States as a 21-year old in 1889 after deserting from the Austrian army. The pulpit was completed in 1896 and stood in All Angels Church, which at the time was located on West End Avenue and 80th Street. In addition to the pulpit, the church featured a two-and-a-half story Tiffany window.

Sculptor Karl Bitter as he appeared in the early 1900s

Bitter enjoyed great success in America. He created sculptures for the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893. Yes, that’s the one that is the subject of Erik Larson’s book, Devil in the White City. Bitter also did sculptural work on many other buildings including Trinity Church, the Biltmore Estate, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Bitter died in 1915 at age 47 when he was struck by a car.

All Angels Church has its own fascinating history. It was founded in the 1830s, well before the pulpit was carved or the building it stood in was built. All Angels’ first church building was a wooden structure constructed in Seneca Village, a nineteenth-century inter-racial community on the west side of Manhattan. Seneca Village was established in 1825, and was the first place in the city that African Americans owned property. In addition to its African American founders, Seneca Village became home to German and Irish immigrants.

Angels sculpted by Karl Bitter on a pulpit used in All Angels Church

What happened to Seneca Village and the original All Angels Church? The land was taken by eminent domain in 1857 when construction began on Central Park, and the whole village was demolished. Demolition was also the fate of the second All Angels building. In 1979 it was torn down, and an apartment building was constructed in its place. Fortunately, the beautiful pulpit found a home in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. All Angels is now in its third location, on West 80th Street.

There are so many threads that connect these carved angels to New York City and the history of art and architecture. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s description of the pulpit can be found at https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/10170. Another interesting note can be found on the website of Evergreene, an architectural arts company that removed, then reinstalled the pulpit during a renovation of the American Wing. https://evergreene.com/projects/karl-bitters-all-angels-church-pulpit-and-choir-rail-disassembly-and-reinstallation-metropolitan-museum-of-art/

A Library’s History

The history of a public library is often the history of a town, its residents, political trends, American culture, and world events.

What do library lovers do on vacation? Visit libraries, of course. Recently I spent a delightful morning exploring the Ilsley Public Library in Middlebury, Vermont. Later, I went on its website and read up on its “colorful history” which touches on a worldwide pandemic, the Depression, World War II, controversial books, access for those with disabilities, and the dawn of the computer age. Here is a short summary culled from the library’s timeline:

Main reading room at the Ilsley Public Library in Middlebury VT
Reading area near the entrance

The Middlebury library began as a reading room in 1848. By 1870 it was housed in a rented room that contained 673 books. In 1924, the current building was completed, thanks to Colonel Silas Augustine Ilsley, a Civil War veteran who gave $25,000 in his will to pay for construction. His widow also gave $25,000.

The website of the Ilsley Library provides a series of timelines that detail some of the institution’s colorful history. For example, the library was closed in October, 1918, “due to the epidemic.” This is a reference to the 1918 Influenza (“Spanish Flu”) pandemic that the CDC estimates killed 50 million people worldwide, 675,000 in the United States. In 1934, the library basement was used by WPA artists. In 1939, it was noted that despite numerous requests for The Grapes of Wrath, the novel was not purchased because it “would cause too much adverse comment.” This decision was reversed by 1940, but the librarian was asked to “keep track of its loan.” In 1942, the Red Cross used a portion of the library basement as a “surgical dressings room.” The early 60s saw some discussion about whether it was appropriate to have Updike’s Rabbit Run on loan. A federal grant in 1977 helped pay for an addition which allowed “handicapped access.” In 1984, an anonymous donor provided the children’s room with the library’s first computer, a Commodore.

Walking into this library gives evidence of its long history and very active present. An easel at the entrance holds dozens of book reviews written by patrons. The children’s room is so engaging I can easily imagine parents having a hard time getting their children to leave. I especially loved the way picture books are displayed—like records used to be at music stores. This allows children to flip through the books and easily see the cover illustrations—so important for attracting interest. And the whole room was filled with stories and story-telling props. There were computers and building toys. And a place to paint moon rocks. And a dragon made from paper plates. And a mural with sea creatures and a pirate ship. And a bathtub filled with stuffed animals. And an inflatable earth and moon hanging from the ceiling. And … so much more.

If you have a chance to visit this wonderful library, be sure to stop in. Here’s a link to the library website. http://www.ilsleypubliclibrary.org/

Our Carnegie Libraries

History is all around us. You can find it in your own city or small town. One place to start is the library. Maybe it’s a library that began with a grant from Andrew Carnegie.

Generally I’m a kitchen table writer. I love working at home and have the house to myself during my most productive hours, about 9 am to 3 pm. But our 1940s-era cape lacks central air, so when the heat and humidity become unbearable I head to one of the Norwalk libraries.

The Tudor-style Carnegie Library in Norwalk, Connecticut.
The main branch of the Norwalk Public Library in Norwalk, Connecticut

Libraries play a huge role in the life of a writer, and not just for AC. It’s wonderful for research, reading groups, author talks, writers’ conferences, and books. Loads and loads of books. And librarians. No matter how odd your question, they treat you like you’re Indiana Jones heading out on an amazing quest.

Carnegie Library in South Norwalk, Connecticut showing lamp post and front entrance steps.
The South Norwalk branch of the Norwalk Public Library

Norwalk, Connecticut, is one of the few cities to have two Carnegie Libraries. The reason is that until 1913, Norwalk and South Norwalk were separate cities. There are over 1,600 Carnegie libraries in the United States. A Carnegie library is one built with the financial support of the wealthy industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919). Carnegie was one of the richest men in the country, and gave away about 90 percent of his fortune. He funded the construction of Carnegie Hall, opened in 1891, and gave donations to advance teaching and world peace. His life was not without controversy, especially when it came to unions and workers’ rights. But such good has come from those libraries.

The South Norwalk Library began in 1878 as a reading room holding 500 donated books. By 1885 sufficient funds had been raised to construct a building at 108 Washington Street. That building is still there—it houses a salon now. Norwalk’s first library was organized in 1879 with about 100 books and a rented room near the intersection of Wall and Main Streets. For both libraries, the reading rooms were open to residents, but to take out a book you had to pay a $2.00 membership fee.

The Carnegie library in Norwalk, CT, as it appeared in the early 1900s

Norwalk applied for a Carnegie grant in 1901 and received $20,000 after promising continued municipal support and a building lot. The lot was donated by a local businessman, the Tudor-style building was completed in 1902, and the new library opened in 1903.

The Carnegie library in South Norwalk, CT

In 1908, South Norwalk also received a $20,000 Carnegie grant and completed construction on its Greek Revival building in 1913. Carnegie libraries were constructed in many architectural styles, but often featured lamp posts representing enlightenment and a set of steps at the entrance representing advancement by learning.

Although the cities of Norwalk and South Norwalk merged in 1913, the libraries were not united under municipal administration until the 1970s. Norwalk also has two smaller independent neighborhood libraries: The East Norwalk Library opened in 1913 and the Rowayton Library in 1915.

Plaque on Norwalk Connecticut library indicating it was presented to the people of Norwalk in 1902 by Andrew Carnegie.
1902 plaque commemorating the opening of Norwalk’s Carnegie library

You can find an article on Norwalk’s library history at http://ct-norwalklibrary.civicplus.com/DocumentCenter/View/65/Norwalk-Public-Library-History?bidId= . A list of all the Carnegie libraries in the U.S. can be found at ttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Carnegie_libraries_in_the_United_States . The PBS American Experience site offers a concise biography of Andrew Carnegie at https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/carnegie-biography/

Bethesda Terrace and The Angel of the Waters

It happened one day in Central Park. I felt as if I had walked into my book …

The magical Angel of the Waters fountain at Bethesda Terrace in New York's Central Park. A scene in The Better Angels takes place at the fountain.

Some of the scenes in The Better Angels are set in New York City. Recently I felt the need to revisit those Big Apple sites to recheck the accuracy of my descriptions. The first place I had to see was Bethesda Terrace.

Aggie May, the main character, is a time traveler, so of course I had her visit the terrace. It was designed by Calvert Vaux who wanted all of time—day and night, all the seasons—represented there. The sculptor Jacob Wrey Mould brought Vaux’s vision to life.

So look at the sculptures lining the stairs, and this is what you’ll find: A rooster and sunrise symbolize the morning. An owl and bat represent the night—along with an open book and a lantern to read by. Tulips and a bird’s nest bring us into spring, roses and an ear of corn into summer. A witch and pumpkin take us into fall. Are the pine cones for winter? What I love about these sculptures is that they are visual puzzles: whimsical and head-scratching and mysterious and beautiful. The Central Park Conservancy says the terrace is “rich with complex iconography,” and they are completely right.

And then there is the statue, the Angel of the Waters, that represents healing. She was created by Emma Stebbins, the first woman commissioned to do a public sculpture in New York City. Vaux wanted the statue to suggest “both earnestly and playfully the idea of that central spirit of ‘Love’ that is forever active, and forever bringing nature, science, art, summer and winter, youth and age, day and night, into harmonious accord.”

The Angel of the Waters statue at Bethesda Terrace in Central Park. In the book The Better Angels, the main character visits the terrace.

I spent hours at the Terrace. I saw a couple getting married, a man singing, and groups of children in matching t-shirts. And all the time I was partly present, and partly in my story. I looked at the carvings on the stairway and knew what my character Aggie felt about them. I knew which stairway she walked down as she approached the fountain, who she would encounter under the archway, and what they would say to each other. I had walked into my own story …

My son Andrew, a writer himself, says when you write about a place, then go there, you discover you have developed a connection—“an intimate relationship”—with the space. That’s what I feel about Bethesda Terrace.

You can read more about Bethesda Terrace by checking out this fine article by the Central Park Conservancy. http://www.centralparknyc.org/about/blog/calvert-vaux-bethesda-terrace.html

Seniors. Superheroes. Not mutually exclusive.

What if the person acquiring an amazing new ability was not a teenager born on Krypton? Was not a young man bitten by a radioactive spider? What if the person was a sixty-something retiree? A sixty-something female retiree?

Before I began my writing career, I was a teacher. Many of my students loved books about teenagers becoming superheroes, vampires, and mythical characters. Then one day I asked, “What if the person gaining an amazing new ability was old?” And wow, what interesting ideas emerged! Those ideas helped inspire my novel The Better Angels.

Old New York City subway poster encouraging people to offer seats to seniors. The poster reads "Suppose you were old?"
Saw this at an exhibit of old New York City subway posters in Grand Central Terminal.

Every now and then you can find an older protagonist in a comic book or graphic novel, but usually the character acquired superpowers as a young person, then must confront the limits imposed by aging. I was interested in different types of characters: ones who only developed their superpower (in my book it is the ability to time travel) as they grew old.

So instead of a superhero/coming-of-age story, it would be … dramatic pause here … and an abrupt stop. I wasn’t sure what it would be. There really isn’t a name for a narrative form that deals with fictional characters changing as they grow old. Coming-of-age stories follow the move from childhood toward adulthood. What do we call stories about the move from middle-age to old age? Yes, such a story could be a tall tale, or an epic, or a parable, or a fantasy. But those terms do not specifically address the unique issues faced by older characters.

Comic-Con at the Javits Center in New York City.
Comic-Con at the Javits Center in New York City. I wonder how many attendees were over 50? 60? 70?

Were such stories out there? I hoped so. But I couldn’t find much. I admit that my research was not exhaustive. (Basically, I googled.) I did locate articles about superheroes that had been “allowed” to age and the dilemma faced by comic book writers and illustrators when decades-old characters never developed wrinkles or gray hair. I found almost nothing on characters that didn’t even get their powers until they were over 50, or 60, or 70 …

Poster which reads The Most Important Thing in Life is to Be Yourself - Unless You Can Be Batman. Always Be Batman.
Great poster I saw in a shop. Yes, always be Batman, even if you’re a senior.

Certainly many retirees feel they are beginning a new life when they leave the regular workaday world. And some sixty-somethings face the same issues as twenty-somethings: where to live and who to live with, what to do, who to love, what kind of family or community to create. This seemed like fertile ground for a story—a story about older adults that are diverse individuals, not solely caretakers of grandchildren and compilers of bucket lists.

And so it began. I decided to create and explore a world in which seniors—so often marginalized or subjected to unflattering portrayals—experience the wonder of new ability, the possibility of new love, and the need to face danger and break rules.

Mathew Brady and Civil War Photography

One reason I chose to write a time travel novel was because of my fascination with history. One area I explored was the history of photography.

A lithograph of Civil War photographer Mathew Brady
Mathew Brady as a young man.

This is Mathew Brady, considered the father of photojournalism because he sent photographers out of the studio to the battlefields of the Civil War. In October, 1862, his New York City gallery displayed photographs of the dead at Antietam. The New York Times review of the exhibit stated: “Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along the streets, he has done something very like it.”

Photo of dead at the Battle of Antietam. In The Better Angels, the characters attend the exhibit at Mathew Brady's studio.
One of the photos shown at Brady’s exhibit “The Dead of Antietam.”

Brady did not travel to the battlefield himself. The photographs were taken by Alexander Gardner and James Gibson between September 19 and 22, 1862. The photographs were “stereos” and were displayed in boxy stereograph viewers, giving the images a 3-D effect.

Robert Wilson, the author of a terrific biography of Brady, states that the photographs of Antietam “marked a turning point in the portrayal of war.” Sketch artists, whose drawings were featured in the illustrated newspapers of the era, tended to soften and romanticize warfare. Photography, on the other hand, was remorseless.

This vintage photo shows Mathew Brady's photography studio at the corner of Broadway and 10th street in New York City. Grace Church is across the street.
Mathew Brady’s New York Studio at 785 Broadway at 10th Street, New York City. Courtesy The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

The photograph above shows Brady’s studio at the corner of 10th and Broadway in New York City, diagonally across the street from Grace Church. The building that held the studio is long gone (there’s a bank there now) but Grace Church is still there.

One level of the studio served as a gallery, displaying portraits of political and military leaders as well as distinguished writers, artists, and celebrities. Photographs were displayed from floor to ceiling, with the pictures at the top hung at an angle so visitors could see them better.

Drawing showing the interior of Civil War photographer Mathew Brady's studio.
This drawing shows the interior of Brady’s studio. Photographs were displayed on the second floor. The upper floors had skylights to provide lighting for the photographers.

I love it when I find a book that transports me to a different time and place. Can you tell I spent a lot of time with Wilson’s wonderful book?

Are you interested in learning more about Mathew Brady and the history of photography? Mathew Brady: Portraits of a Nation by Robert Wilson offers a fascinating look at the early years of photography and how this invention shaped and was shaped by the momentous events of the nineteenth century. You can find out more about the book and its author at http://www.mathewbrady.net/author.html

Lincoln, The Better Angels, and Word Choice

The title of my book The Better Angels comes from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address given on March 4, 1861.

At the time of the inauguration, seven southern states had already seceded. Within weeks shots were fired at Fort Sumter beginning the Civil War. The last paragraph of Lincoln’s address, a plea to preserve the union, is as follows:

I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

William Seward, who would become secretary of state, had suggested that the last line refer to the “guardian angel of the Union,” but Lincoln decided on “better angels of our nature.” The historian Ronald C. White Jr., in an opinion piece for NPR, says Seward’s term was impersonal. Lincoln’s brilliant revision made the plea “deeply personal.”

White is correct. Lincoln’s appeal is to each individual listener. He pleads for each person to act–to join the chorus of the union. The speech would have had a different, and lesser, impact if it simply referenced hope for aid from a guardian angel. It is a reminder that history is not just a listing of famous people and events. History confronts and envelops all of us. We are all participants.

White’s opinion piece was written in 2011, on the 150th anniversary of the first inaugural address. It can be found at https://www.npr.org/2011/03/04/134162178/150-years-later-lincolns-words-still-resonate