What Is a Flower Frog? Learn How to Use Them in Arrangements and Why They're Collectible Today
It's a secret tool for gardeners and crafters, equally utilitarian as it is decorative in the home.
People often admire flower frogs in antique shops and at flea markets without knowing exactly what they're looking at. The shape and color are charming, but what are all those holes for? The answer is simple: flowers. These frogs are creatures of lead, pottery, glass, and bronze that were designed to live in the water at the bottom of a bowl and keep the trickiest flower arrangements firmly in place. The familiar pincushion variety does the same job, but collectors look for the thousands of more ornamental examples produced between 1880 and 1940. Anything from a $10 wire sculpture à la Alexander Calder to a $1,000 Art Deco dancing girl can be a frog, out there for the picking by those who can tell the difference between a mere knickknack and the real thing. "You have to know them when you see them," says collector Bonnie Bull, author of Flower Frogs for Collectors ($67.94, amazon.com), adding, "If you are not sure, walk right up and check to see if there are holes."
The History of Flower Frogs
These openings (into which stems of flowers are inserted and secured) are the raison d'être of every frog—an object with a surprisingly long history. The earliest known examples date back to the fourteenth century and were used in the Japanese art of flower arrangement known as ikebana. Because this technique required the strategic placement of a few perfect blooms, some kind of holder was necessary. Early forms were fashioned from iron; later examples ranged from crabs and turtles to decorative openwork designs and pincushions, or kenzan, "needle mountains" in Japanese. The frog itself was often part of the look—clearly visible in the shallow water at the bottom of the requisite low, flat bowl.
Although modern books on ikebana sometimes refer to a flower holder as a frog, it is not a traditional Japanese term. When and how this name evolved is the big question: "I was always told it was called a frog because it sat in water," says Bud Ardente, an instructor at New Jersey's American School of Plant and Flower Design—plausible folkloric wisdom echoed by most of today's collectors. An educated guess: During the craze for all things Japanese that swept this country in the late 1870s, Americans may have seen examples of ikebana complete with amphibious flower holders and playfully began to call them frogs. The term is at least that old: In 1876, the Oxford English Dictionary reported that a certain Sir E. Beckett referred to "…making bricks with a hollow in one or both faces which I have heard absurdly called a frog." Beckett was probably talking about flower bricks—porcelain or pottery bricks pierced for stem placement, a type of flower holder that turned up in eighteenth-century Europe.
Today's collectible frogs are clearly descendants of the decorative Japanese models. The most elaborate reproduces the look of an ikebana arrangement with an attached figurine—often an artistically posed dancing lady—perched among the holes. Just add flowers and you have the perfect centerpiece. Inspired by dancers like Isadora Duncan and Loïe Fuller, these fancy figural frogs appeared around 1910, sporting long hair and flowing art-nouveau drapery. For the next twenty years, these were the favorite table decoration of the American middle class—artistic yet extremely useful. After all, flower arranging was a crucial homemaking art.
Today these ladies are the queens of the flower-frog world. "They are the pinnacle of collecting in this field," says Bull, who, as creator of the now-defunct Flower Frog Gazette, knows her subject. Endlessly graceful, they are also incredibly varied; they were produced by dozens of potteries and glass companies in the United States, Germany, Japan, and Czechoslovakia. Those made by America's great art potteries also appeal to the armies of collectors searching for Cowan, Roseville, Rookwood, or Weller pieces. Dealers can always tell what the attraction is: Pottery collectors want both pieces, while frog fans often pass on the matching bowl. Prices vary from $50 to $600, depending on rarity, condition, and aesthetic interest.
The ladies produced in quantity by the Cambridge Glass Company are so popular that collectors have given them affectionate names like Bashful Charlotte. New York City psychiatrist Dr. William Sommer is the proud owner of more than three hundred dancing ladies, which he describes as "pretty baroque with fountains, cupids, and shepherdesses." Some frogs pair ladies with animal friends, with whom they appear charmingly intertwined. Art Deco icons like snakes, flamingos, and stags are common choices. Other creatures go solo: Dolphins, mermaids, herons, goldfish castles, turtles, and (of course) frogs made of pottery, glass, porcelain, lead, and silver look at home at the bottom of a bowl.
In Use and On Display
When form follows function, flower frogs become sculptural and abstract. "I have them all over the house, and I'd find it hard to give up even one," says Bull. "For me, they represent the carefree spirit of their heyday—the 1920s."
"They have real utility; they are not just art for art's sake," adds Sommer. In fact, many in this field love the idea of a collectible that looks like a charming knickknack—until you bring out the snapdragons and put it to work.
Bull says the market for frogs "started moving briskly a few years ago," prices seem to have risen only slightly in the past ten years. Wire frogs still sell for a few dollars at thrift shops and garage sales, particularly outside of heavily traveled antiquing routes, and even dancing ladies still turn up for $50. Of course, you can go to New York City and pay $1,200 for an example by Steuben, Tiffany, or Wedgwood, but for most collectors, that's not the point. "I love the hunt," says Sommer, admiring a porcelain lady dancing atop a green turtle. "This field is fresh ground. Nobody has paid any attention to these wonderful objects. You never know what you are going to find."