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Favored Flowers: Culture and Economy in a Global System

Favored Flowers: Culture and Economy in a Global System

by Catherine Ziegler

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Billions of fresh-cut flowers are flown into the United States every year, allowing Americans to choose from a broad array of blooms regardless of the season. Favored Flowers is a lively investigation of the worldwide production and distribution of fresh-cut flowers and their consumption in the New York metropolitan area. In an ethnography filled with roses,


Billions of fresh-cut flowers are flown into the United States every year, allowing Americans to choose from a broad array of blooms regardless of the season. Favored Flowers is a lively investigation of the worldwide production and distribution of fresh-cut flowers and their consumption in the New York metropolitan area. In an ethnography filled with roses, orchids, and gerberas, flower auctions, new hybrids, and new logistical systems, Catherine Ziegler unravels the economic and cultural strands of the global flower market. She provides an historical overview of the development of the cut flower industry in New York from the late nineteenth century to 1970, and on to its ultimate transformation from a domestic to a global industry. As she points out, cut flowers serve no utilitarian purpose; rather, they signal consumers’ social and cultural decisions about expressing love, mourning, status, and identity. Ziegler shows how consumer behavior and choices have changed over time and how they are shaped by the media, by the types of available flowers, and by flower retailing.

Ziegler interviewed more than 250 people as she followed flowers along the full length of the commodity chain, from cuttings in Europe and Latin America to vases in and around New York. She examines the daily experiences of flower growers in the Netherlands and Ecuador, two leading exporters of flowers to the United States. Primary focus, though, is on others in the commodity chain: exporters, importers, wholesalers, and retailers. She follows their activities as they respond to changing competition, supply, and consumer behavior in a market characterized by risk, volatility, and imperfect knowledge. By tracing changes in the wholesale and retail systems, she shows the recent development of two complementary commodity chains in New York and the United States generally. One leads to a high-end luxury market served by specialty florists and designers, and the other to a lower-priced mass market served by chain groceries, corner delis, and retail superstores.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Favored Flowers is an excellent book, an extremely impressive and important piece of original research. A case study of the contemporary commodity chain has been the ‘next big thing’ in anthropology, geography, and sociology for some time now, but this is one of the first studies that I have read that really lives up to the promise, including all the neglected middle sections of the chain. Here the wholesalers, the buyers, the packing, developing, storing, transporting, selecting, and distributing finally get the respect they deserve.”—Daniel Miller, editor of Materiality

“Catherine Ziegler has made an important contribution to our understanding of the intricate networks that make the global flower industry tick. Her history of the role that flowers have played in our culture is fascinating, and her analysis of supply chains, communication networks, and worldwide trends makes Favored Flowers an invaluable read for people inside the flower industry and for anyone who has ever picked up a bouquet and wondered about the story it had to tell.”—Amy Stewart, author of Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful in the Business of Flowers

“What might it mean to offer a biography of an everyday commodity, at once attentive to its conditions of production and distribution and yet never losing sight, as Marx asserted, of its magic, mystery, and fetishistic qualities under capitalism? Catherine Ziegler’s marvelous book Favored Flowers tackles the extraordinary world of the global flower industry, tracing the complex sinews linking growers in the Netherlands and Ecuador to retailers and consumers in New York. She takes the reader for an exhilarating ride along the cut-flower commodity chain, dirtying her hands in the greenhouses, interviewing middlemen and retail florists, and charting the floral contours of love and pleasure among the Upper East Side bourgeoisie. This is political and cultural economy of the highest order.”—Michael Watts, University of California, Berkeley

Contemporary Sociology - W. L. Goldfrank
Favored Flowers is a wonderful book, intermingling political economy, class analysis, gender, and culture in a fragrant bouquet. It would cheerfully adorn many a bookshelf or reading list.”
Business History Review - Vicki Howard
“[A]s Ziegler persuasively argues . . . the decline of the traditional florist, who enjoyed a monopoly in his field for over a hundred years, is a reflection of the broader effects of globalization that have transformed retailing. . . . [C]ompelling reading for anyone interested in learning what makes globalization tick.”
Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute - Kaori O’Connor
“A rose is a rose is a rose—but to whom, how, when, where and why? These are among the questions explored in this beautifully conceived and finely crafted analysis, which deserves to become a classic. To call it a ‘commodity chain study’ risks over-simplifying this marvellously rich work, in a field that has long suffered from a degree of over-simplification and parochialism. . . . To all of us who work with commodities, Favored Flowers is a true benchmark. If any recent study deserves bouquets, this is it.”

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Culture and Economy in a Global System
By Catherine Ziegler


Copyright © 2007 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4007-2

Chapter One

Tastes, Traditions, and Trade, 1870-1970

In Old New York New Year's Day-Edith Wharton's story about the tastes, manners, and morals of elite New York society in the 1870s-a prosperous New York woman named Lizzie Hazeldean "paused before a Broadway florist's window and looked appreciatively at the jars of roses and forced lilac, the compact bunches of lilies-of-the-valley and violets, the first pots of close-budded azaleas. Finally she opened the shop-door, and after examining the Jacqueminots and Marshal Niels, selected with care two perfect specimens of a new silvery-pink rose" (Wharton 1924, 25).

In her appreciation of flowers and her attraction to the new, Lizzie Hazeldean was typical of her class and time. She is the appropriate starting point for an examination of floral cultural practices, favored flowers and the means of growing and delivering them to generations of flower buyers over the succeeding century. In this period dominant segments of the cut flower commodity chain altered in response to the expansion of the chain and to incremental adjustments in relationship between its component growers, traders, and consumers. These adjustments were themselves conditioned by broad economic, social, and technological changes. In the earliest period (1870-1920) the needs and desires of New York "society" and upper-middle-class consumers dominated the types of flowers produced and when and how they were grown. Between 1920 and 1970, growers' interests ultimately structured what was produced for and consumed by a growing middle class. In the third period (1970-2005), described in detail in succeeding chapters, middlemen came to orchestrate an expanding system that linked globally dispersed growers to U.S. flower consumers.

This chapter identifies the historical flower consuming practices that survived to flourish in the contemporary period. These practices carry meanings that resonate with contemporary New York Metropolitan Area consumers today. Persisting floral customs reveal something of the values that have been accepted-or rejected-in the continuous process of negotiating social and cultural transformation. Certain floral holidays-Mother's Day, Valentine's Day, and Secretary's Day-increased in popularity because they were relevant to the values of new middle-class consumers, while other holidays and practices-such as wearing fresh flowers-declined or disappeared because they were irrelevant. Yet, at the same time, these changing floral tastes and practices hinged on the types of blooms growers decided to produce and retailers chose to offer to consumers.

New Classes and the Culture of Flowers

Fresh flowers have long had a role in supporting cultural meanings and expressing certain social and cultural values. Goody's useful term the "culture of flowers" incorporates some of the complexity of this role. It implies simultaneously the cultivation and growing of plants and flowers, the meanings assigned to flowers, and the spread of "knowledge, the enjoyment and richness of flowers" (1993, 27). The term also encompasses "the complex social and cultural organization of production" and the sense that flower growing accompanies rising standards of living, a certain level of luxury, and "civilization" (25-26).

Few people participated in the culture of flowers before the nineteenth century. Kings, nobles, and wealthy merchants were among those who had the leisure and resources for such activities. Its spread was criticized-generally by the Christian church-for being part of "cultures of luxury" and wasteful expenditures and for its role in the diversion of limited resources to the production of luxuries for the rich (Goody 1993, 65).

During the later nineteenth century, however, economic and social transformations helped to spread interest in plants and flowers in England and in parts of Europe and the United States. In Britain the Industrial Revolution began a movement of rural labor to cities. It also created industrial wealth, new businesses, and new kinds of employment that eventually assisted the formation of new class sectors. This was a slow process. Even in 1867, when most people lived in cities and towns, three quarters of the population was in the manual laboring class while the "genuine middle class" of merchants, doctors, architects, engineers, and so on numbered about 200,000. A broader definition of middle class that included all those who could afford domestic servants, expanded the middle classes to 1.4 million in 1871. By 1901 the middle and lower middle classes constituted about 30 percent of the British population-or about twelve million people-with about five and a half million of them living reasonably or comfortably (Ohmann 1996; Hobsbawm [1968] 1999, 132-45).

In the United States these transformations proceeded more slowly still. In 1850, six out of ten people in the United States worked on farms, but by 1900 six in ten worked for wages in shops, homes, and factories. The value of manufactured goods rose from $1.9 billion in 1859 to $13 billion in 1899, expanding at more than twice the rate of population growth. Capital-"wealth capable of producing more wealth"-had an especially dramatic rate of increase in the last fifteen years of the nineteenth century (Ohmann 1996, 50). A great deal of this capital was invested in manufacturing while railroad construction and development of government land also helped, as Ohmann puts it, in "transferring wealth upwards" (1996, 52).

Regular crises of overproduction and declining prices contributed to a high rate of business failure and severe depressions marked each decade after the 1860s. Nevertheless this era of industrial capitalism in the United States produced the most rapid capital formation in history. Much of the resulting wealth concentrated in a small, enormously rich upper class. Some of it, however, spilled onto the swelling upper middle and middle classes that increasingly shaped their values and identity through material consumption encouraged by mass production, new department stores, domestic advice books, magazines, and advertising (Miller 1981; Dudden 1983; Ohmann 1996; Norton et al. 2001).

Ideas about Puritan thrift, Christian virtue, and an earlier nineteenth-century ideology of domestication and morality linked to the "cult of true womanhood" were adjusted to accommodate displays of luxury and consumption. New employers such as department stores, banks, railroads, and insurance companies aided the evolution of a new kind of middle-class person as well as a new type of worker. Previously the expansion of the middle class had been associated with becoming the proprietor of a small business. Now the employee in a bureaucratized, impersonal, hierarchical working structure identified with the bourgeois culture and aspired to its lifestyle. New and aspiring members of the middle classes could shape their identity through consumption guided by new institutions like department stores including Wanamaker in Philadelphia and Lord and Taylor in New York.

Magazines and newspapers were an important part of this reconfiguration of the middle classes. In New York, editors and publishers "scanned the culture of the city, and played a balancing act between their own interests and the perceived interests of an urban audience" (Wells 1999, 21; emphasis in original). Wells suggests that even as early as 1836 the penny papers contributed to the definition of the middle class, including the married woman's role in that class. By printing approving accounts of the daily provisioning activities of a young, middle-class wife-her class clearly signaled by her accompanying maid-papers like the New York Herald engaged in shaping "the cultural boundaries of respectable behavior [providing] a more confident feel for what it did and did not mean to be in a social order, rather than outside it" (45).

Amid these social transitions the culture of flowers became a component of the expression, elaboration, and stabilization of a developing middle-class culture. These expressions took different forms in different settings. One form was the cultural phenomenon known as the "language of flowers" and the idea that flowers could carry secret messages or the arrangement of a bouquet could conceal complicated codes. Nineteenth-century middle classes on both sides of the Atlantic embraced this faddish notion. Traditional meanings of flowers were organized and elaborated. White orange blossoms, for example, meant virginity, the carnation signified "lively and pure love," the red rose deep passion, and the white rose carried "a message of innocence and virginity" (Goody 1993, 249). Remnants of this idea persist today in little guidebooks and a widespread but vague sense among flower buyers that certain flowers have particular meanings of which they are ignorant.

In Britain two other enthusiasms spread a culture of flowers-the rise of domestic flower gardening and a passion for plant collecting. Flower gardening and plant collecting are complex, costly activities and their wider adoption depended on the spread of new wealth to growing upper middle classes and leisure for hobbies and interests. An emerging gardening literature was also important. It provided new conceptions of smaller-scaled gardens and information about new plants to an increasingly receptive public. Another factor was a widespread fascination with the science of botany. This new discipline developed as global exploration and an enlarging colonial empire presented appreciative Victorians with thousands of exotic new plants. Wealthy owners of greenhouses or "hot-houses" were among the first to grow and propagate the new plants. Gradually, however, new plants and flowers reached a broad, eager public.


The new garden designs that appeared in the mid-nineteenth century represented a complete rethinking of earlier garden practices. Under the previously dominant English Landscape Gardening School, the wealthy employed imaginative landscape gardeners to reshape the rural landscape into "great natural curves, crowned ... with clumps of trees, natural forest and boundary screens" (Fleming and Gore 1979, 119). To create an idealized view, a hundred thousand trees might be planted, entire villages moved, and thousands of laborers employed. A later variation, the "picturesque" garden improved the landscape near the country house with winding gravel walks, neatly cut lawns, and circular beds filled with flowers. This picturesque style provided the foundation for the new style of garden design (Hyams 1966; Plumptre 1993).

Three imaginative garden designers-John Claudius Loudon, Joseph Paxton, and William Robinson-turned their attention from contouring estates to designing gardens for the small urban and suburban villas, the homes of the middle classes. Their new garden designs drew heavily on the paths, lawns, and flower beds of "picturesque" gardens. However, densely planted, productive, rural "cottage" gardens also provided an important inspiration and eventually gave a name to the emerging style.

All three designers helped establish an important gardening literature that spread ideas about the new style of gardening and knowledge about the plants and flowers available. One of Loudon's major contributions was his novel placement of flowers and plants. His garden and landscape ideas were adapted and promoted in the American setting by Andrew Jackson Downing. Robinson is credited with reintroducing wild nature into gardening style. His ideal was a cottage garden filled with native English flowers and the finest exotics flooding in from abroad, all blooming abundantly together. Robinson's particular planting style was later elaborated by Gertrude Jekyll, one of its best-known exponents. Her books and ideas are still influential in flower gardening in Europe and North America. As enthusiasm for the new garden styles spread, garden owners, on both sides of the Atlantic, sometimes spent lavishly to acquire new and unusual roses and other kinds of flowers. By the later part of the nineteenth century, flower gardening as an adjunct to homemaking was an accepted pastime for middle- and upper-class women in Britain and the United States (Fleming and Gore 1979; Plumptre 1993).

These changing garden styles reflected the ethos of their respective times. The eighteenth-century English Landscape Gardening School demonstrated the concentration of wealth and power in land-owning classes and resonated with the age's concern for reason, the achievements of civilization, and the control of nature. Wild and cottage garden styles, in contrast, evolved at a time of Victorian enthusiasm for exploration and a fascination with natural science and the beauty and astonishing profusion of the forms provided by wild nature. This enthusiasm for natural science and botany paved the way for a third factor in new garden design and in the diffusion of the culture of flowers: hothouse gardening.

Hothouse gardening-in heated glass structures later known as greenhouses-allowed the cultivation and propagation of flowers and fruits from tropical regions. More importantly for this study, roses, camellias, lilies, violets, and many other types of flowers could be forced to bloom outside their natural seasons. Previously a luxury of kings and wealthy aristocrats, by the early nineteenth century this complex form of gardening was popular among the growing classes of wealthy industrialists and merchants. The repeal of the British glass tax in 1845 meant that the passion and practice of hothouse gardening could be adopted further down the social ladder. Improved sheet-glass-making technology and manufacturing processes further reduced the price of glass by 1860. Cast iron construction allowed for larger panes and more light in the greenhouse. In England and America, prosperous middle-class homeowners began to display their plant collections in glass conservatories attached to their houses (McGuire 1989). These larger, stronger, cheaper, light-filled greenhouses made out-of-season commercial cut flower growing feasible.

Impassioned plant collectors and gardeners depended for satisfaction both on the developing plant nursery industry and on an extraordinary Victorian profession: plant hunters. These men engaged in a highly competitive business as they traveled around the globe seeking new plants. Orchid hunting in remote places was a particularly dangerous form. Susan Orlean (2000) refers to it as "a mortal occupation" and describes one expedition to the Philippines in 1901 in which seven of the eight hunters died. The surviving hunter eventually emerged from the jungle with almost fifty thousand Phalaenopsis plants. A century earlier few of these captured plants survived the journey back to Europe; one plant in a thousand lived through the voyage from China to England. The discovery of the terrarium principle in 1829 and the consequent invention of the Wardian case-a glass-topped wooden case that could be stored on deck to protect plants during long sea voyages-eventually reduced the hazards of global travel for plants. By the 1870s plant hunters were safely sending hundreds of thousands of plants back to England in these cases (Hyams 1966; Plumptre 1993; Orlean 2000).

Plant hunting was funded by collectors, nurseries, and by two powerful new scientific institutions, the Royal Botanic Society of London and the Horticultural Society. Both were important in feeding Victorian appetites for exotic plants and flowers and both influenced the types of cut flowers we buy today (Hyams 1966; Brockway 1979; Nichols [1902] 2003). The Royal Horticultural Society concentrated on spreading knowledge about plants and gardening and training gardeners and designers, while the Royal Botanic Society's research center at Kew Gardens focused on botanical science and developing economic crops. Kew administrators and botanists tested, developed, and transported tea, rubber, and sisal plants around the world to new profitable homes on British colonial plantations. However, many of the plants shipped back to Kew by hunters had no large-scale economic applications. Instead, they joined the thousands of plants brought to England by private collectors decorating new public parks and gardens, sustaining a growing nursery trade and fueling enthusiasm for domestic flower gardening and the culture of flowers. By mid-century the bursting flower beds and vast plant collections at Kew and the Royal Horticultural Society's gardens at Chiswick drew hundreds of thousands of visitors annually.


Excerpted from FAVORED FLOWERS by Catherine Ziegler Copyright © 2007 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Catherine Ziegler received her Ph.D. in social and cultural anthropology from The New School for Social Research. She teaches history and anthropology at Parsons: The New School for Design. She is the author of The Harmonious Garden.

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