Say It With Flowers is generally attributed to one Major Patrick O’Keefe. The story goes that, in 1917, O’Keefe, a Boston adman, was having a drink in a bar with Henry Penn, a former president of the Society of American Florists. According to a 1960 edition of The Kiplinger Magazine [a US financial title], the two were discussing possible slogans for the organisation. “There is nothing that you can’t say with flowers – when you send flowers, it says everything,” Penn supposedly remarked. To which O’Keefe exclaimed, “That’s it.”
At the time Penn’s point was almost literally true. Floriography – the language of flowers – had gained popularity during the Victorian era to the extent that it had become a complex means of coded communications. Using particular blooms or even just their scents, Victorians were able to convey emotions that the strictures of the time made impossible to speak about openly. Thus, if a man sent the target of his affections a red chrysanthemum (meaning ‘I love you’) he would be hoping to receive in return perhaps a Jerusalem Oak (‘Your love is reciprocated’) and not a striped carnation (a symbol of refusal). It all got so complicated that floriography dictionaries were published allowing flustered romantics to check the meaning of the latest delivery – is that a chickweed (‘I cling to thee’) or a burdock (‘Touch me not’)?
By 1917 the more arcane aspects of floriography may have receded but the use of flowers to send messages was thriving thanks to a more recent innovation – the telegraph. In 1910, 15 American retail florists agreed to exchange orders via this new device so that customers could order bouquets in one town to be delivered to an address in another. This Florists’ Telegraph Delivery association adopted O’Keefe’s ‘Say it With Flowers’ slogan for an ad campaign for Mother’s Day in 1918. As the FTD went global (the UK equivalent, Interflora, formed in the 20s) the slogan went international too. It was never copyrighted but was in use for over 50 years in advertising, on shopfronts and even, from 1936–39, on the logo of the FTD itself.