A New Light on Old Flowers

Inside Grant Cottage State Historic Site, where former President Ulysses S. Grant died of cancer on July 23, 1885 after spending his final weeks penning his memoirs, national grief remains frozen in time in the form of flowers.

Now nearly 140 years old, five different Victorian-era funerary floral displays in the parlor draw different reactions from visitors, ranging from “amazing” to “creepy.” But given that relatively few examples from that era survive today, these displays are also a rare look into the past.

Ulysses S. Grant on the front porch at Grant Cottage, with his wife, Julia, by his side. Grant was racing against his terminal cancer to finish his memoirs as a way to provide for his family.

While flowers have long been part of burial rituals, it was the tragic death toll of the American Civil War that ushered in the golden age of arranged floral tributes, when such displays became common for soldiers’ funerals.

Upon Grant’s death, such expressions of mourning for a leader who meant so much to Union victory began arriving at the cottage, which is located on Mount Macgregor in Saratoga County, about an hour by car north of Albany. One tribute still on display in the parlor was in the form of an oversized pillow, provided by Union veterans in Philadelphia from the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) that Grant had commanded two decades earlier.

A composite image of the floral pillow arrangement, with its appearance today on the left, and a photograph taken in the late 19th century at the right.

A reporter noted, “Almost every train which arrived at Mt. McGregor has brought beautiful floral mementos from Grand Army Posts and other organizations, and also from personal friends…” making the modest cottage “fragrant with flowers.”

Perhaps the most impressive piece was the enormous six-foot-high “Gates Ajar” tribute which rested in front of the fireplace. Likely custom-built, it was sent by family friend Leland Stanford of California – a native of Watervliet, Albany County who went on to become California Governor and later a U.S. Senator from that state. Its design depicted the gates of heaven, a popular theme of tributes in that era.   

The “Gates Ajar” floral arrangement, to the right, with the pillow and cross arrangements on the table to the left. Lighting in the room is normally kept dim to protect the display from potential degradation.

For decades, these displays have remained untouched and undisturbed in the cottage parlor, losing their fragrance and much of their color faded, but otherwise intact, other than being understandably dusty. Last year, these artifacts came to the attention of historical florist expert Robert Treadway (co-author of A Centennial History of the American Florist), who visited in August 2021  to inspect  under the supervision of conservators from the New York State Bureau of Historic Sites and site staff.

Treadway immediately cleared up two common misconceptions about the displays _  that they were prepared using fresh flowers which dried over time and  had been coated in wax as a preservative, neither of which were the case.

Treadway also found that the most prevalent flowers used were immortelles (Helichrysum), a species in the sunflower family also known as everlastings for their long-lasting nature, which had been dried before use.  In the Victorian era, immortelle flowers symbolized remembrance and hope in everlasting life, especially to the families of the deceased.

Historical florist expert Robert Treadway, right, joined by State Parks Conservator Heidi Miksch, examines the floral funerary arrangements at Grant Cottage State Historic Site.

Everlastings were frequently shipped to the United States from Europe and dyed various colors for use by florists. Bunches would be wired to a small stick and inserted into moss which filled a wire framework to create the tributes. It was a painstaking process that involved numerous assistants. Since the displays for Grant were designed only for short-term use, wax coatings on the flowers were deemed unnecessary and not used, according to Treadway’s inspection.     

Given that the delicate nature of these artifacts, Treadway and State Parks staff discussed how to best protect and preserve such historic objects for the years to come. Various options were discussed, including coatings, enclosures, and environmental controls, each method with its benefits and drawbacks.

Representing a nation’s mourning over the loss of a war hero and leader, the arrangements reflect a uniquely Victorian outlook on death and the hereafter, each with its own specific meaning.

The “Gates Ajar” symbolized the gates of Heaven, reassuring the grieving that their lost loved one was destined for a better place that, with the gate left ajar so they could follow and be reunited. The pillow set piece represented peace, relief, and eternal rest from the trials of the physical world.

Two floral pieces feature a cross, commonly used as symbols of  Christian tenets of grace, forgiveness, and salvation. Two pieces incorporate an anchor, another favorite Christian symbol representing hope amid trial with God being the “anchor of the soul.” One piece features a heart along with the anchor and cross. The heart symbolized the everlasting love of Christ but also the love of those in mourning for the deceased.

The floral cross with sword.

Two pieces – the pillow and one of the crosses – also feature a sword, which reflected General Grant’s military career, as well as the virtues of justice, fortitude, and courage.  

Victorian set pieces showcased the artistry and creativity of florists during that period. One of the best-known florists, Adolph Le Moult, operating out of New York City, created one of the largest floral pieces ever made for an event in Grant’s honor during a visit to Philadelphia in 1879. Le Moult also created elaborate floral tributes for Grant’s funeral in New York City in 1885.

The goal of florists in the 19th century was not just making impressive arrangements but also ensuring they would last. Florists boasted in advertisements with statements such as, “I can so perfectly preserve even the most delicate flowers that they will last forever.”

Floral funerary displays line Grant’s Tomb in Upper Manhattan to mark the year after his death.

Preserved funeral mementos from the Victorian era can be found in public and private collections throughout the world. For example, wax-coated and encased floral pieces from the 1881 funeral of James Garfield are displayed at his home in Mentor, Ohio.

What truly makes the tributes at Grant Cottage unique is their sheer scale and survival to the present despite never have been coated in wax, encased or otherwise protected from the onset or in the decades since. Treadway indicated that the two largest pieces are larger than any others known to exist.

Flowers continued to be used in tribute to Grant by his widow, Julia. While staying at the family’s Long Branch, New Jersey cottage, she continued remembering her greatest love through this mourning ritual:

“On an antique cabinet… is a bust in plaster of the brave old soldier… Behind it hangs a wreath of white immortelles -a widow’s first tribute to memory- with a circlet of white ribbon still clinging to it, typical of wedded love. A slender glass filled with geraniums… Every morning this tiny bouquet is gathered… by the lonely wife who kisses the blossoms and tenderly places them before the face of her hero. The faded flowers are dried and, mixed with their own fragrance, go to make those memory-bags so highly prized by the friends on whom they are bestowed.”

For now, these  treasures at Grant Cottage will continue to transport visitors to a moment when family, friends, and a nation were in mourning for an American icon. They are tributes not only to a man,  but to the character and ideals he lived by. These aging blossoms speak to humanity’s enduring need to grieve and desire to memorialize those they love and respect.

Ulysses S. Grant, and his wife, Julia.

Post by Ben Kemp, Friends of Ulysses S. Grant Cottage Operations Manager

These , our Earth’s perennial flowers—
The fadeless blooms by Poets sung,
Songs, that from Homer’s Age till ours,
Down the aisles of Time have rung—
In many an emblem do we weave
For passionate Remembrance’ sake;
And howe’er we joy, howe’er we grieve,
Sacred pilgrimages make;
For Loss and Grief, the Asphodels
On our graves we mourning lay;
For Memory, the Immortelles—
Our loved ones live for us always.
Death in Life, Life in Death—how we
This, Love’s Faith, keep reverently.

By Laura G. Collins’s from Immortelles and Asphodels (Everlastings) (1898)

More About Grant Cottage


Located immediately below the summit of Mount McGregor in Saratoga County, the cottage and 43-acre site was recently named a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service.

The cottage is kept as it was during the Grant family’s stay. Open to the public seasonally by the Friends of the Ulysses S. Grant Cottage, visitors can tour its first-floor original furnishings, decorations, and personal items belonging to Grant.

Tours are scheduled to resume for the season on April 30, 2022. Other artifacts on display include the bed where he died on July 23, 1885 and the mantel clock stopped by Grant’s son Fred at the moment of his father’s death.

Grant Cottage first opened as a historic site in 1890 when it was supported by funds raised by veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic.

The grounds surrounding the Cottage served as a tuberculosis sanitarium beginning in 1914, which in 1945 was converted into a veteran rest camp, until 1960 when it was repurposed and annexed as the Rome State School for disabled children until 1976. The Friends of Ulysses S. Grant Cottage was formed in the fall of 1989 to provide programming and tours, and partner with New York State Parks on site stewardship.

Take this slideshow tour through the house…

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