Of posies, nosegays, and tussie-mussies

By Glennis Byron
December 1, 2022
Filed in Flowers
8 minutes

It’s the end of November and there’s next to nothing to pick except the increasingly straggly bright red schizostylis seen in nearly every Victoria garden around this time. To feed my flower arranging addiction, it’s time to make posies. I did this last winter, using such things as supermarket potted roses, house plants and violas from the garden centre, and it helped satisfy the craving until spring bulbs began to bloom.

Unfortunately, this year I didn’t plan very well. I did buy two potted roses at the supermarket last month, and this was lucky, because now the shelves are laden with amaryllis, cyclamen and poinsettias, some in unnatural lurid shades and covered in bling. There is little to inspire someone bent on posies. And the garden centres are further conspiring to thwart my plans by cramming every inch of space with fir trees, overpriced wreaths, and bundles of eucalyptus, holly and the like. What can they be thinking?  I went looking for some dainty pastel violas and all I found were a few gaudy pansies and primulas.

Posy holders

My posy holder

I’m a bit disappointed because I’ve just bought a posy holder and wanted to find some appropriately delicate flowers to go with it.  You may have seen these posy holders in antique shops or on ebay, Etsy and the like.  They’ve become an immensely popular type of Victoriana recently and can cost thousands. Have a look, for example, at some the beauties on offer from Cynthia Findlay in Toronto. In the UK, look at Ruby Lane: there’s a gorgeous sterling silver and turquoise posy holder currently on sale for 2,085 GBP. I don’t suppose there’s much point in putting this on my Christmas list …

This gorgeous posy holder is on sale at the time of writing for 2,085 GBP at Ruby Lane Antiques

Victorian posy holders are typically around 3-6 inches long and in a trumpet shape. The stems of flowers are placed down the narrow end, with a little moistened moss to keep them fresh, and the blooms fill the opening. The posy is then held in place by a pin on a chain. There is usually a ring attached to the handle, allowing the posy holder to be worn on the finger. Others, like the example from Ruby Lane above, have three hinged ‘legs’ which function as a tripod and allow the holder to be placed on a table. And some even have little mirrors on them.

Posy holder with mirror

Collector Irene Deitsch believes these were ‘flirting mirrors’, allowing a young woman to see someone behind her. (Less romantically, one could imagine a practical young lady finding it most useful for surreptitiously checking her teeth for stray spinach.)

Should you ever consider buying an antique posy holder, caveat emptor: there are a lot of copies out there. Do check out this article by Mark Chervenka, which tells you how to distinguish the antique from the fake.

My recently purchased posy holder, I must add, is no glamorous antique. It’s just a cheap reproduction from Etsy which the seller described as ‘vintage’ and from the 1940s. But it is a good reproduction, and I mainly wanted to get a look at how one worked so I’m very pleased with it. I even managed to get just enough flowers to try it out.

My posy holder with a mini rose, some daphne, scented leaf geranium, violas scrounged from a neighbour, and wax flower from the floris
Another posy in holder, here looking disturbingly like something a gardener might use to repel vampires

And if you were wondering how that pin could possibly hold the posy in place, well, I was sceptical, but, as they say, the proof is in the pudding (rather a wobbly pudding I’m afraid as I don’t find them easy to balance on the finger):

Nosegays and posies: a little history

The carrying of sweet smelling nosegays began as a way of protecting against infection. ‘Miasma’ theory, as it’s called, held that diseases are produced by unhealthy or polluted vapours rising from the ground or from decomposed material, and it was thought that pungent perfumes could somehow neutralise these sources of infection. Hence the idea of holding some fragrant herbs and flowers up to the nose.

In a particularly quirky version of this, the beak masks worn by plague doctors at the time of the Black Death had a fragrant compound of herbs, spices and honey enclosed within the beak which was supposed to cleanse the air before it reached the nostrils and lungs.

That stick the doctor holds, by the way, is for poking the sick to keep them at arm’s distance, something which probably helped more than the fragrant herbs.

Posies and poetry

The word posy is often thought to be an abbreviated form of ‘poesy’ or poetry, and possibly originated as the verses presented with a nosegay, eventually becoming applied to the flowers themselves. Some have even suggested that the flowers themselves constituted a kind of poem, couched in the language of flowers. Nosegay and posy became quite interchangeable. Both could be used to refer collections of poems or to little bunches of flowers. To give one example of the old connections between flowers and poetry, the first secular collection of poems by a woman printed in English is Isabella Whitney’s A sweet nosgay, or pleasant posye contayning a hundred and ten phylosophicall flowers &c. (1573). There’s something to spice up dinner party conversation …

Posies as fashion accessories

As ‘miasma’ theory began to give way to the germ theory of infection in the nineteenth century, the nosegay became less a protective device than a fashion accessory, and fashionable ladies, including the young queen Victoria, would be seen holding what were now increasingly called posies.

The young Victoria at the opera, holding a posy in a posy holder.
Edmund Thomas Parris, ‘Portrait of Queen Victoria’ Wikigallery.

And the interest in posy holders was spread throughout the western world, not just in Victorian England; America took up the trend with particular enthusiasm.

A collage of images from the American Godey’s Lady’s Magazine which show posies held by a variety of women, and by a young girl. The ‘corsage’ referred to in the top left image is the jacket the girl is wearing, not the flowers.

Floral misinformation

If you’ve looked at some of the links I’ve added in this post, you may have noticed that these holders are usually referred to not as posy holders but as tussie-mussies, a much more intriguing term, and one we are constantly assured the Victorians used to describe both the holders and the flowers put in them. You’ll find this repeated all over the internet, by everyone from antique dealers to collectors, from Etsy sellers to bloggers. If I can put my former hat of university professor with a specialism in Victorian literature back on for a moment, let me assure you this is complete tosh.

What’s all this about tussie-mussies?

The term used to describe a sweet smelling nosegay of herbs and flowers in Middle English was tusse-mose or tusmose which in Modern English became tuzzy-muzzy. And this was indeed another term for a nosegay until the early seventeenth century.

But as historical lexicographer Jonathan Green has shown, by 1642 the term tuzzy-muzzy had become slang for the vagina. This is confirmed also by Francis Grose in his 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, where he defines tuzzy-muzzy as ‘the monosyllable’, a euphemism of the time for another less salubrious word for the vagina.

This is what tuzzy-muzzy/tussie-mussie meant in the nineteenth century. One of the few published references we have to the term during this period is the bawdy songbook, ‘The Tuzzy-Muzzy Songster’, from the most notorious Victorian publisher of pornography, William Dugdale. I leave the contents to your imagination.

A search in the British Newspaper Archive brings up no matches at all for the nineteenth century; the term begins to appear in these archives – but only sporadically – in the early twentieth century, in reports of flower shows or weddings and by people clearly unaware of its former bawdy overtones. And it is only in the last thirty or so years that the term tussie-mussie has made such a widespread comeback. Refashioned and all nicely cleaned up, it is now claimed to be a Victorian term for posy.

Why this has occurred I could not guess: catchier and more intriguing than posy holder perhaps? Better for marketing maybe? The one thing I can say with confidence is that despite numerous claims to the contrary, tussie-mussie/tuzzy-muzzy was not in general use as a term for a posy in the nineteenth century.

The Victorians were by no means the laughable prudes they later came to be defined as in the popular imagination. (Forget about ‘Lie back and think of England’: if you still believe in those old chestnuts have a look at some of Victoria’s love letters to Albert). Nevertheless, it is highly unlikely they would have talked of tussie-mussies in general conversation when referring to a posy or its holder. Indeed, one can only imagine how a time-travelling Victorian reader might snicker to read in a twentieth-century newspaper that ‘Our Queen Elizabeth held a tussie-mussie in Westminster Abbey at her Coronation’ (Stapleford & Sandiacre News, 9 April 1981, 6).

Let’s go back to posy, shall we?

Thanks to Susan Hamilton, Professor Emeritus, University of Alberta, and to those members of the list-serv on the Victoria Research web who so generously responded to a query about the tussie-mussie.

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  • Susan Hamilton

    I remain intrigued by the rehabilitation of the term. It is simply so odd that the 1940s or thereabouts would see a resurgence of its pre-Victorian, non-vulgar, flowery meaning when, one might think, the writers and readers of the 1940s would be best acquainted with the Victorian usage. Ah well, one suspects that the term is just too appealing to be left languishing in the 19thC pornographic gutter.

    • Glennis Byron

      Absolutely. You can just imagine someone like Virginia Woolf snorting with laughter if she came across the term being used in an innocent way. But those who used it in reports of flower show and the like must have been unaware.

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