This story was originally published in the May 2017 Princeton Echo.
Oh, the colorful, fragrant bouquets and flowers of Mother’s Day. They represent one of the busiest seasons of the year not only for Princeton’s florists but also for those across the nation. Indeed, Mother’s Day flowers chalk up a whopping $2.5 billion in sales nationally.
It wasn’t intended to be a commercial bonanza. Credit for our Mother’s Day holiday goes to Anna Jarvis, who in 1908 had her mother memorialized at St. Andrew’s Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia. Decades later the church took advantage of the occasion by becoming incorporated as the International Mother’s Day Shrine — something to visit should you ever inexplicably find yourself in Grafton.
Jarvis chose white carnations to put on her mother’s grave because they were her mother’s favorite flower. With the success of the Sunday service, Jarvis campaigned for a national Mother’s Day. It took a lot of work but by 1914 Woodrow Wilson signed a presidential proclamation designating the second Sunday in May as a national holiday to honor mothers.
Florists and card companies loved the idea and quickly touted their respective offerings as gifts. Jarvis was not amused. She argued that Mother’s Day was to be a moment for personal remembrance and acknowledgement — make your own cards and gifts — and not a money maker for others. When the nonprofit American War Mothers, founded in 1917, started selling Mother’s Day carnations to raise funds, Jarvis took to the streets and was arrested for disturbing the peace.
Flower sellers quickly leaped upon the language of flowers, a concept known as floriography. While various attributes have been assigned to flowers for thousands of years, modern marketers carefully selected those for carnations.
White carnations were said to symbolize the attributes of motherhood: purity, faithfulness, charity, and beauty. That seems a bit much, but these flowers are only to be used for mothers who have died and, thus, placed on their graves. Should you wish to give your mother a carnation for the holiday and are at a loss for words, you can tell her that you chose pink ones to represent your gratitude and love and red ones to demonstrate your admiration.
Jarvis eventually became so upset with the commercialization of Mother’s Day that she started a crusade to rescind the holiday. At one point she criticized First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt for using Mother’s Day as a platform to raise funds for charity. These efforts came to naught when declining fortune and health led to her being placed in a Pennsylvania sanitarium in 1943. When she died in 1948 at the age of 84 her obituary noted that friends had to chip in to cover her healthcare costs. Other sources indicate that a trade association, the Florists’ Exchange, also contributed to her care, causing some to conclude that the floral and greeting card industries were intent on keeping Jarvis in the sanitarium and out of their way until her death.
By then the floriography was well defined. Today the majority of the thousands and thousands of Mother’s Day bouquets and arrangements contain carnations, which have been the official flower for the celebration for more than a century.
But not here in Princeton. “Princeton is different,” says Shelly Larson, floral manager at the McCaffrey’s store located in the Princeton Shopping Center.
Larson speaks with authority: She has managed McCaffrey’s Princeton floral shop since it opened 25 years ago. Prior to McCaffrey’s she had acquired 12 years of experience at a floral shop and since then has earned an FTD certificate in design.
“Princeton is multicultural,” Larson says. “People come from different backgrounds, widely different from the West Virginia town where the idea of carnation flowers for Mother’s Day originated. At that time, carnations were popular and not many other flowers were easily obtained. About 15 years ago, thanks to globalization, the floral palette broadened considerably and Princeton people have taken advantage of that.”
“We have found,” she continues, “that the cut flowers most in demand on Mother’s Day are hydrangeas, lilies, and roses. We will have a few carnations on hand but they are just not the big sellers that they were when I first started here.”
Larson has three on her staff and a fourth part-timer for exceptionally busy times such as Mother’s Day. Two of her workers are Princeton born and bred. Both Sarah Henderson and Kay Silverthorn can remember when their work space was part of Epstein’s Department Store. “My mother used to take me shopping here,” Henderson says, “and I never thought I would be putting together floral bouquets in an area where dresses were displayed on rows of racks.”
Though flowers, plants, and bouquets are for sale throughout the hours that McCaffrey’s is open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., the floral department staff are only on hand from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. to handle special orders and answer questions. Again, Mother’s Day is different. They arrive at 7 in the morning and leave at 9 at night, when the store closes.
Many customers opt for what Larson calls a European bouquet. In these arrangements, the customer chooses the kind and amount of cut flowers and the staff arranges them, adds greenery if requested, ties the stems with a ribbon, and then wraps the result in cellophane. These bouquets all vary with the tastes of the purchasers. Some are bursting with the rich reds and golden yellows of roses and lilies while others opt for more pastel purchases, bouquets filled with soft white hydrangeas and pink roses.
“There are definite stragglers on Mother’s Day,” Larson reports. “People who dash in wanting something at the last minute, and that’s why we stay open longer.” Often the late shopper will choose flowering plants because there is so little time to assemble a bouquet. “Potted hydrangeas and azaleas in full flower are especially popular,” she notes. “I also sell a lot of hanging baskets.”
As she does throughout the year, Larson offers a variety of ready-made bouquets and arrangements through local vendors and Mother’s Day generic offerings at McCaffrey’s are no different. They are colorful, varied, and easy to see and pick up. “When I worked at the floral shop,” she remembers, “we were up all night putting together bouquets for Mother’s Day. That was just too much work.” Her floral team is busy, however, making up special orders on Mother’s Day weekend. They all agree it is an exceptionally busy time.
Offering fresh flowers is always a challenge. The roses at McCaffrey’s are delivered direct from Ecuador. Larson deals with local vendors for her other flowers, plants, and arrangements. Because there are five other McCaffrey’s stores, the vendors can order in bulk and each store can choose smaller amounts. Local growers are also contacted for seasonal flowers. If you go the McCaffrey’s website and click on the floral department, you can see what is in season. Last month, for example, the stores were offering locally grown bunches of forsythia, curly willow, and pussy willow. Larson hopes that local lilacs will be available for special orders and European bouquets on Mother’s Day.
Unlike Valentine’s Day, when flower sales are pretty much concentrated on that one day, Mother’s Day activity is intense the entire weekend. Larson finds it especially gratifying that she receives orders from former residents across the country, people who want flowers delivered to family and friends who still live in Princeton. “We do deliveries,” she says, “but we are not FTD members.”
Carnations were once a Mother’s Day hit. Not anymore in multicultural Princeton.
Viburnum Designs, at 202 Nassau Street, is the new and only other kid on the Princeton floral block. While it does offer FTD services, that appears to be the only plebian aspect of its business. Upon its arrival in town five years ago it declared that it is a unique floral shop in that it is really a design studio rather than a simple flower store.
The Princeton location is the second for the studio, with the first located in Mendham. Both are serviced from a processing and warehouse location in Kingston. “Most people think Valentine’s Day is our busiest time year, but Mother’s Day actually is,” reports event director Claire Belkot. So busy in fact that the store, normally open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday extends its hours to 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and is open on Mother’s Day Sunday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Fresh flowers, again, are crucial. “We order direct from the Dutch market,” Belkot explains. “We have someone meet the plane from Holland at JFK and deliver the flowers directly to our Kingston location for processing. We order from local flower distributors as well and these distributors obtain their flowers from all over the world — Japan, Alaska, South America, and even down the road in Pennsylvania.”
The studio illustrates its design capabilities on its website. There you see 24 different designs featuring seasonal flowers. Each design is named — e.g., Daffodil Charm, Plum Passion, Spring Rejuvenation — and is accompanied by price information. There are another 21 arrangements under Designer Portfolios and include Royal Perfection, St. Tropez, and Antique Elegance. You must call for the cost of these designs. The studio also has a design staff for custom orders.
Belkot reports that those ordering Mother’s Day gifts from designs on the firm’s web page typically choose English Garden, Pastel Garden, Elegant Sunshine, or Lux Garden. People seeking special arrangements, Belkot says, usually “are looking for beautiful garden flowers such as hydrangeas, peonies, lilacs, sweet peas, and hyacinths.”
Viburnum Designs will be filled with fragrant and colorful flowers in the days leading up to Mother’s Day and the designers will be busy at work putting together arrangements. There will not, however, be one carnation in sight. Princeton, as Belkot has learned in her five years here, is definitely different.
McCaffrey’s, 301 North Harrison Street, Princeton. 609-683-1600.
Viburnum Designs, 202 Nassau Street, Princeton. 609-683-8800.