“The proceedings were dull, but the flowers were bright and fragrant, and in profusion, and the air was full of the odor of roses, hyacinths, carnations, and geraniums.” No, this isn’t a description of a spring trudge around the Tidal Basin, but The New York Times’ description of the opening of a congressional session in the winter of 1893.
In modern times, the beginning of a session of Congress is marked by procedural votes and political grandstanding. And it was much the same at the turn of the 20th century, except with an infusion of scent and color.
In 2018, daily meetings of Congress are mainly attended by sleepy school groups clad in matching T-shirts, but in the 1890s, an event like the opening day of Congress was a grand affair. All of the galleries would be nearly at capacity, filled by a “distinguished assemblage, including many ladies in brilliant attire,” according to the San Francisco Call.
Attendance was probably appreciated by the members, but dressing up in finery wasn’t the only way for people to show affection for their favorite legislator. Family members, political supporters and those seeking favor would send members of Congress floral arrangements.
It’s unclear when the practice started, but by the early 1900s, the tradition of a chamber decorated with flowers had existed since a time “beyond the range of memory,” according to the St. Louis Post.
Watch: The Congressional War on Flowers — A Brief History
And the arrangements went well beyond simple vases. In 1893, The New York Times reported that the Senate chamber featured wicker baskets of roses, horseshoes of flowers draped over Senate desks and “a monster nosegay,” and that the task fell upon a small boy to lug in “a basket of flowers bigger than himself.”
“Viewed from the press gallery it was a bewildering collection. It seemed as if its designer had aimed to get every known flower and color in it and had succeeded beyond his expectations,” the Times’ report continued.
While the reporters of the era seemed to have no objection to the congressional flower show, those less prone to sentiment were concerned that the elaborate displays slowed Senate business in more ways than one.
The arrangements became so ridiculous that in 1905, The Baltimore Sun noted that “the persons [the flowers] were meant to compliment were completely hidden behind the productions of florists.”
With numerous procedural matters with which to dispense on the first day of session, the flowers created a literal mess. It could take over an hour for Senate staff to clean up the aftermath and cart away the flowers, which only further tarnished Congress’ do-nothing reputation that they maintained even over 100 years ago.
Aside from the practical considerations of flowers in the chamber, there were social and ethical concerns. Much like an elementary school student excluded from an exchange of Valentine’s Days cards, it was painfully obvious which members were unpopular from the lack of foliage on their desks.
According to the Senate Historical Office, rumors floated through the Capitol that senators were guilty of purchasing arrangements for their own desks to save face. Speaker Joseph “Uncle Joe” Cannon’s distaste for flowers was at least in part rooted in their cost.
Cannon declared to the Los Angeles Times that he knew of “many instances where persons who fancied themselves under some obligation to a Senator or Representative sent floral offerings which they could ill afford.”
Eventually, neither chamber could escape Uncle Joe’s dislike of the practice. In 1905, he forbid even a single bud from crossing the threshold onto the House floor, and the Senate followed suit and adopted a resolution on Feb. 24 of the same year, stating that “until further order the Sergeant-at-Arms is instructed not to permit flowers to be brought into the Senate Chamber.”
According to “Riddick’s Senate Procedure: Precedents and Practices,” flowers have been allowed back in the chamber on a somewhat regular basis between 1923 and the present day, usually in respect to the death of a senator. The most recent occurrence was on April 9, when Democrat Mazie Hirono from Hawaii received consent to place a traditional maile lei on her desk, which was once occupied by Democrat Daniel K. Akaka of the Aloha State, who had just died.
So flowers in the chambers of Congress are now mostly associated with somber events.
Chamber traditions and mores change slowly. Consider that Senate traditions forbade women wearing pantsuits until 1993, when the “Year of the Woman” class elected the previous year tipped the balance enough to turn the tide.