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Floral Design and the Economy in Colonial VA
By Claire Ledoyen
The first hundred years of the Virginia colonies were grueling, to say the least. From the time Englishmen began building their settlement on the Chesapeake Bay 'til around the mid-1700’s, settlers faced hardships ranging from inhospitable winters and harshly humid summers to surprise ambushes by local Native Americans who, as one could imagine, weren’t too happy about their new neighbors.
After not starving, the second item on the VA colonists’ agenda was planting, harvesting, and selling tobacco–a labor-intensive process that called for the hardworking bodies of free men and slaves. When they weren't working in the field, men erected houses and town buildings while women cooked, cleaned, and made clothing, candles, soap, and other household requirements.
Even though their lives were pretty bleak, the settlers still craved beauty and decorated their homes (however modestly.) Colonial flower vases in America from 1620 'til about 1720 were usually everyday household items such as glass bottles, kettles, and pitchers that held a simple bouquet of freshly cut flowers.
After moving the capital of the Virginia colony to Williamsburg in 1699 and undergoing a boom in population between 1730 and 1760, the settlement lost some of its austerity, becoming a small yet bustling hub for government, education, and the growing Chesapeake Bay economy.
Consequently, floral design from 1740 on was far more elegant than the humble bouquets of the previous century.
Compared to the simplicity of household pitchers and bottles, finger vases might have seemed ostentatious before they grew in popularity. However, their creation and embellishment employed skilled artisans during the late 1700’s, and the new demand among colonial housewives for fashionable flower vessels provided a sustainable if small industry in the developing economy. Hand-painted and made of finer materials such as porcelain, pewter, or stoneware, finger vases were usually filled with violets, sunflowers, snapdragons and ornamental grasses.