What is the history of artificial flowers? Where were they first made and when were they first manufactured for sale?

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Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Artificial flowers are just what it sounds like they are: imitations of real flowers made from a variety of materials. While it is possible to buy plastic flowers either very cheaply or for a specific purpose, such as an outdoor arrangement, most people are referring to silk flowers when they use the term "artificial flowers." The term "artificial" denotes "fake" or "false," which is an accurate description as far as it goes; however, those words also connote "inferior" or "less than." In many cases, especially now, artificial flowers are just as beautiful--and certainly more durable--than real flowers.

In ancient Greece and Rome, artificial flowers were made of very non-traditional elements, such as horn and metals, but it is not surprising that silk flowers originated in the country known for its silk-making: China. Three thousand years ago, the Chinese began to raise silkworms in an attempt to produce the soft silk for which it is known, and it was a monumental task, since these silkworms cannot survive on their own without human existence.

For about 1,500 years, this silk was used in medicine and to make the stunning fabrics which are so familiar to the world; then the Chinese began to use the silk to make artificial silk flowers. In the beginning, these flowers were used and worn only by the rich females in the royal palace, but as trade expanded so did interest in the artificial stems, creating a flourishing business in silk flowers.

In the twelfth century, the Italians were the first Europeans to manufacture artificial flowers, using the cocoons of the silkworms, and France began making them soon after. Over the next three hundred years, the French grew better at this art and became the forerunner in the field. France's artificial flowers made their way to England, and they eventually came to America. 

During the Victorian Era, people were using flowers more than every before, and many of those were artificial. In fact, they often supplemented their silk and real flowers with a wide variety of fabrics, most of them anything but fine silk. Today artificial flowers are an affordable and practical alternative to the more fragile and pricey (but more fragrant) real flowers. Even plastic and polyester flowers today look much more realistic than they once did.

Modern silk flowers, instead of being an artistic rendition of the real thing, so closely mirror live blooms that many can’t tell the difference between real and artificial without a very close look.

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