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  • "The Flower Charity. Heaven bless it!":A Study of Charity in Literature and Culture
  • Robin L. Cadwallader

At a crucial point in Elizabeth Stuart Phelps's story "The Lady of Shalott," the impoverished seamstress Sary Jane brings her invalid sister a bouquet containing blossoms, probably lilies-of-the-valley, that the sister sees as "silver bells." How, we might wonder, does Sary Jane obtain flowers when the two are so poor they have only "a lemon for dinner"? As the reader soon learns, Sary Jane did not buy the flowers; they came from "The Flower Charity. Heaven bless it!"

Created to provide flowers for people who lacked access to their beauty and moral uplift, the Flower Charity, or Flower Mission as it was more commonly known, was an international organization in operation from the late nineteenth through the early twentieth centuries.1 Founders of the movement, which "provided for the aesthetic tastes" ("The Flower Mission," Arthur's 526), believed "the poor, the sick, and afflicted, have as keen a sense of beauty as the rest of us" ("The Flower Mission," Harper's). According to an announcement in Forest and Stream magazine, its "conception . . . was eminently feminine" ("The Flower Mission"), an opinion expanded upon by Virginia Forrest in Zion's Herald: "Women as a class," she argues, "are willing to employ the most unpretentious means if thereby they can save or help some soul."

Although there are various accounts of the Flower Mission's origins in the United States, more than one source claims it began in 1869 in Boston, "the inspiration of Miss Helen W. Tinkham," a young teacher, who had the idea "[t]hat the myriads of flowers that bloom and fade in many a suburban garden might be a source of untold pleasure, not only to the invalid shut in close, crowded rooms of the poorer portion of the great city, but also to the sewing [End Page 377] girls in the large establishments, and many others who almost never see the country, but are obliged to toil from morn until the set of the sun."2 To put the plan into action, announcements were made "in several places of worship in Boston, inviting all having fruits and flowers to send them . . . to a place named." The plea was so successful that 150 flowers or small bouquets were given out in the first distribution; by 1872, the Boston mission was dispensing twelve thousand donations in a season ("A Flower Mission"), and in 1888 three hundred flowers/bouquets were delivered each mission day between May and October (Humphrey 543). In some cases, missions distributed fruit as well as flowers. (Thus, although Phelps does not say so in her story, Sary Jane's lemon could have been a gift of the mission.)

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Fig. 1.

Pomona Fruit & Flower Mission, c. 1880 (Denison & Howard Elite Studio). Courtesy, Pomona Public Library, Pomona, CA

Flower charities were generally local and served particular geographic areas. Documented organizations existed in Baltimore, Cincinnati, Evansville, Fall River, Indianapolis, Louisville, Muncie, Newport, Peoria, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Pomona, Portland, San Francisco, St. Louis, and St. Petersburg, in addition to Boston and New York. Small groups in the country helped to support the work of city missions by providing flowers, fruit, and other items for distribution. [End Page 378] At different times throughout the charity's history, the Flower Missions came under the supervision of the Women's Christian Association ("Aunt"), the Women's Christian Temperance Union (Russell), and the Children's Aid Society ("Miss Wolfe's"). In 1894, the National Plant, Flower and Fruit Guild was established to unite "the scattered Flower Missions throughout the United States" and "increase[e] the efficiency of their work" ("Literary" 579).

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Fig. 2.

"The Flower Mission," Harper's Weekly 13 June 1874: 492. (Alfred Fredericks, artist)

The level of organization required for the flower missions to function cannot be overestimated. Most missions set two days a week as "mission days," when volunteers (almost all women) met to "receiv[e], [put] together, and then distribut[e]" the donations ("The Flower Charity").

The author of "The Flower Mission" explains that "[t]he distributors...


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