Sunflower Mania

This flower became an emblem of good taste in the 1880s.

April 11, 2012

The design movement known as Aestheticism sparked an international interest in sunflowers. Inspired partly by Oscar Wilde, the poet and self-proclaimed Aesthetic expert who could often be seen wearing or carrying a sunflower, fashionable Victorian ladies and gentlemen began to decorate their homes and gardens—and themselves—with sunflower images that ranged from the realistic to the abstract. Enjoy this collection of 1880s ephemera that highlights the sunflower craze.

Diecut "scraps" like these sunflowers, printed in Germany about 1880, were sold by the millions to girls who pasted them into elaborate scrapbooks.


Mrs. Hotchkiss, of Auburn, New York, used sunflowers to advertise her ladies' furnishing goods business about 1880.

Oscar Wilde, with sunflower boutonnière, and his devoted Aesthetic followers are thinly disguised on this Victorian trade card advertising Warner Brothers Coraline Corsets, "the latest Aesthetic craze." The popularity of sunflowers grew along with Wilde's fame.

The mannerisms of Aesthetic men in their "greenery-yallery" velvet suits are caricatured on these 1880s trade cards advertising a wallpaper business in Pennsylvania. "People are going 'Wilde' (not Oscar) over our Aesthetic designs in wall paper," proclaims the business's proprietor, W. M. Beck.

The Gilbert & Sullivan opera Patience, which debuted in London in 1881 and in New York later that year, inspired a set of cards with quotations from the libretto. This card reads: " Conceive me, if you can,
A matter-of-fact young man,
An alphabetical, arithmetical,
Every-day young man!"

Another quotation from Patience; this one refers to the fondness of Aesthetes for Japanese-inspired decor, including blue-and-white porcelain, and the paintings of pre-Raphaelite artists like Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who painted Paolo and Francesca da Rimini: "A Japanese young man,
A blue-and-white young man,
Francesca di Rimini, miminy, priminy,
Je-ne-sais quois young man."

Aesthetes like this lady with her Japanese fan were frequently satirized by cartoonist George du Maurier in Punch magazine.

An oversized sunflower is used on this 1880s trade card advertising Mrs. Potts Cold Handle Sad Irons, which makes fun of a popular Aesthetic turn of phrase:
"Isn't it too-too? I will buy two and you can buy two-too."

This 1880s trade card in the shape of an artist's palette demonstrates how sunflowers compliment the lady's olive green riding habit.

A young boy in his Little Lord Fauntleroy suit picks a sunflower for his little friend on this 1880s English Christmas card. Christmas cards of that period often featured themes that weren't related to the season.