I was scratching my head about what to do for a festive post, following on from writing about poinsettia in 2014 [ post ] and mistletoe in 2015 [post] … everything I could think of was so hackneyed or so twee that I couldn’t even face doing the research when serendipity intervened. Thinking I might be forced to looked at “Capability Brown and Christmas Tree” or “Santa and his Georgian Grotto” [maybe next year?] or something equally contrived I decided to forget about the blog & think about something else entirely. In the process I discovered an obscure article by the great Victorian garden writer Shirley Hibberd that seemed to solve my problem, despite being unillustrated.
Now Victorian garden writers in general are not exactly a light hearted lot, and Hibberd’s appearance doesn’t immediately suggest someone who would rise to the more amusing side of the season. The writing isn’t that amusing but, as you can see, he did have a nice line in festive hats.
So here, to help you with the finishing touches for tomorrow are Shirley’s “Hints on Christmas Decorations” from Floral World and Garden Guide of December 1871. The illustrations come from a range of other Victorian sources whilst Shirley’s fancy dress comes courtesy of my brother, Nicholas.
What convinced me was a few sentences near the beginning of the piece: “the material available at the present time of year are few , if we keep strictly to the use of natural objects, but we may augment them I mean such suitable additions of an artificial character.” I thought it was going to go on about adding a bit of tinsel or a gold star but no…
“I once had the assistance of some ladies who were expert and tasteful in the making paper flowers, and by their kind help, a brilliant display of paper chrysanthemums set in the midst of evergreens was the result.”
The idea of Shirley Hibberd making paper chrysanthemums seems too good a place to start the post.
So then I had to see if I could trace suitable images of paper chrysanthemums but couldn’t. Nor were there many of artificial flowers generally or even Victorian interiors showing floral displays at Christmas. However what I did find were images of more organized artificial flower making. These range from what I presume was piece work at home to factories where women and children made them on an industrial scale.For more on this see:
It shouldn’t be assumed that it was always necessarily exploitative. In 1866 John Groom set up the Watercress and Flower Girls’ Mission to provide assistance for disabled watercress sellers and flower sellers. Artificial flower making was introduced there as a suitable form of training and employment for the girls from 1879. By 1908 over 250 girls worked at the Sekforde Street factory which was known as the Crippleage.
The first striking thing in his hints was that “Christmas decorations should be prepared with a view to their being effective by gaslight.” Something we probably wouldn’t even have thought about and which clearly made a big difference to the ways colours are perceived. “Hence, elaborate colouring is less needful than broad and bold effects. Half-tints, as a rule, are quite washy by Gaslight, though some neutrals, such as lilac, dove colour, and fawn, are valuable, as they afford by Gaslight various chaste shades of grey, and are more pleasing than white. These colours will generally be preferable to red or any of the primary colours, for ribbons to tie garlands, and in artificial flowers to brighten the effects of the stronger colours.
“The true predominating colours in Christmas decorations should be RED and GREEN”.
BUT even if the flowers you were going to use were artificial, Hibberd thought they should still be artificial versions of ones that would be in bloom naturally at this time of year!
Of course Hibberd preferred living plants and goes on to remind readers that “plants may now be purchased in bloom of the following kinds, all adapted for embellishment: camellias, chrysanthemums, carnations, Chinese primulas, [now hardly grown because they cause severe skin irritation] mignonette, [again hardly grown at all] Persian cyclamen, snowy deutzia, early tulips, poinsettia pulcherrima (a gorgeous thing with large vivid scarlet floral bracts), a few heaths, and azaleas [when was the last time you saw an azalea used for Chritsmas decoration?]
But your own garden should be able to supply “many kinds of evergreen shrubs, and an abundance of berries.” Apart from Holly, “we may also make use of the berries of several kinds of form, cotoneaster, and common euonymous.”Hibberd also clearly thought that most people who were reading would have their own greenhouse and from that “we may obtain a gem of priceless value, the neat little solanum capsicastrum, or its companion plant solanum pseudo-capsicum.” They are understandable but “from the same source we may hope for pot plants of the Aucuba japonica.” We think of this as a tough almost indestructible plant that will grow in the darkest forgotten corners, but from its introduction in 1783 it was considered a hothouse specimen. Even more surprising is that only female plants were known in Britain until Robert Fortune sent a male plant back from Yokohama in 1861 to Standish & Noble’s nursery at Bagshot, Surrey. The firm’s ‘mother plant’ was fertilized and displayed, covered with red berries, at the RHS in Kensington in 1864, causing a stir.
And but who has heard of, let alone grows, the other things “the stove should be able to supply” such as Ardisia crenulata or Rivinia humilis ?“I had almost forgotten to name Skimmia japonica and skimma oblata, two neat dwarf rhododendron-like shrubs that are smothered with scarlet berries now; they are quite hardy, and may be grown in pots expressly for Christmas decoration.”
“In cutting evergreens, it is important to bear in mind that every separate kind is adapted for a separate use. Thus the common laurel, aucuba and Portugal laurel are well adapted for large work, such as festooning the pillars in churches, or for the embellishment of entrance halls; but in dining rooms and refectories they have a coarse appearance.”
By contrast “￼￼hollies are never coarse, and never inappropriate.”
It is at this point that you begin to realise that Hibberd had plenty of servants, or very little else to do with his time!
“T￼he neatest way to make wreaths of leaves and flowers is to cut a lot of Irish Ivy, and tie every leaf separately on lengths of rope and pin the flowers on after the wreaths are suspended. It is astonishing how quickly a few score yards of wreaths may be made by people who set about the work in earnest.”
And then he reminds us that London, and most other towns and cities were really heavily polluted. “In gardens near town, evergreens are generally so sooty that it is not a very delicate business to handle them; but as walls required to be kept clean, a little purification of the leaves should be attempted, especially of such as are to be much handled, and ultimately to touch walls or curtains.”
So what do you need to do?
“Let all the stuff be carried to a clean dry shed or a spare room, and there set a person to work with a heap of dry cloths of any kind, his or her duty being to wipe the surface of the leaves and throw them into clean baskets ready for use. Washing is bad practice – in fact, worse than letting the dirt remain. Our country readers know nothing of the smoke-plague.”
Having decked the walls…
“It is the custom to introduce plants and flowers on the dinner table and in apartments appropriated to festivities. Very pretty groups may be made at a very small cost of time and trouble for the centres of tables, side-boards, and especially for entrance-halls, by means of pot plants and small twigs of variegated ivy clothed with scarlet berries. The plants most suitable for this are poinsettias, solanums, skimmas, primulas and perhaps the Christmas rose. Branches of the glorious pyracantha … with its huge bunches of fiery or orange-red berries, may also be obtainable.”
“Now how are we to make our groups? We want, first, some kind of frame-work to enclose it. The lattice flower-pot covers sold by Carter and co., Barr and Sugden, and other dealers in such things, answer admirably, if cut through, for one cover will then draw out and make two or three yards of pretty latticework.”
Now, as a base for your arrangements you probably need something like moss but Hibberd issues a stern warning: “Moss is not nice stuff to bring into a house, and therefore it is not advised to use it for the substance of the bed, otherwise it will be the very thing we want to fill in between the pots, and make a sort of back to the latticework.”
But Victorian ingenuity comes to the rescue: ” The ladies of the household will soon find something clean and dry to serve as the moss … but if they want a hint to give them a start, I will suggest that Berlin wool of a bright deep grass green colour, clipped into inch or half inch lengths, will make splendid artificial moss, and may be put away when done so as to come again and again for a series of years.”
When such a group is made, a finish may be given by means of wreaths of Holly arching over. These of course should be made of wire let into blocks of wood at each end and bent to the required curve. The wire should be first bound with common hemp and yarn, and then the little twigs of variegated holly, variegated ivy and other variegated shrubs may be tied on. Neatness must be aimed at in making such wreaths as these and a circular group will look best if arched over with two wreaths crossing each other at right angles. A little sprig of something pretty should be hung in the centre with two wreaths cross each other.”
There are two evils incident to the introduction of a decoration of this kind to the dinner table: first, it is likely to interrupts the view, and so prevent people seeing each other; and secondly, it is likely to occupy more room than can be spared. I mentioned these matters that they may be thought of in time, for I should be sorry to be the agent in any case of marring the sociality of a Christmas board.”
“Plateaux and epergnes should always be richly furnished, and everything artificial should be rigorously excluded from them. To devise systematic colourings in the filling of these things is I conceive unnecessary and inadvisable at Christmas.… We want no geometric or chromatic rules, delicate touches of colour are of no consequence, but our ideas of WARMTH and PLENTY should be kept in view at every stage.”
“Nothing suits so well as a display of good fruit with twigs of holly and pyracantha, and a few good flowers sprinkled over them. Apples and Pears affords splendid masses of colour; camellias, tulips and carnations will keep fresh and beautiful many hours if their stems are tucked in between cool fruit, for of course there must be no water; and it is advisable there should be nothing poisonous – so I would say nothing of the Christmas rose or of the solanums for admixture with fruit.”And you’ll be pleased to hear, without a single mention of tinsel, glitter spray or artificial snow Hibberd gives you [or your army of servants] one last task…
“Lastly it must not be forgotten that vases and other such receptacles can be dressed very effectually by means of dried grasses and artificial flowers. For information on growing and preparing and arranging these, reference must be made to FLORAL WORLD for March 1869, in which occurs an illustration of a wreath” of artificial flowers and grasses.
So, if you have nothing better to do…get wiring and snipping, wrapping, cleaning and tieing now and you’ll certainly have deserved that Chritsmas drink even if the decorations won’t be ready until next year!
To read Shirley’s article in full go to: