A Guide to Collecting and Using Flower Frogs

This once-hidden tool used by gardeners and florists can be as decorative as it is utilitarian—and it has quite the history.

yellow white flowers in frog vase with natural light

Kate Sears

Flower frogs in antique shops and at flea markets often catch the eye of casual browsers who are drawn to the interesting shapes, varied colors, and charming designs—without knowing exactly what they're looking at. What are all those holes for? Educated collectors know: They're for flower stems.

Flower frogs are made of lead, pottery, glass, and bronze, and were designed to live in the water at the bottom of a bowl to keep the trickiest flower arrangements firmly in place. The 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 History of Flower Frogs

The earliest known examples of flower frogs date back to the 14th century and were used in the Japanese art of flower arrangement known as ikebana. This technique required the strategic placement of only a few perfect blooms, so a holder was necessary to keep the stems in place.

Early forms were fashioned from iron. Later, shapes ranged from crabs and turtles to decorative openwork designs and pincushions (or kenzan, which translates to "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.

How the Flower Frog Got Its Name

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 for experts. "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—a plausible folklore echoed by most of today's collectors. During the craze for all things Japanese that swept this country in the late 1870s, Americans may have seen examples of ikebana complete with underwater flower holders and playfully began to call them frogs.


Types of Flower Frogs

There are many different styles of flower frogs; they vary in both material and shape. Round glass and metal iterations are the ones you'll most commonly find in antique shops today.

  • Glass flower frogs (commonly found in clear, amber, and green)
  • Metal pincushion flower frogs (kenzan)
  • Metal hairpin flower frogs
  • Metal cage flower frogs
  • Ceramic flower frogs
  • Plastic flower frogs

How to Recognize Collectible Flower Frogs

Today's most collectible (and valuable) 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. 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 20 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.

While a basic, pincushion-shaped flower frog variety does the job (and are fun to thrift), avid 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. "If you are not sure, walk right up and check to see if there are holes."

How to Determine the Value of Flower Frogs

Today, the dancing 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.

Flower frogs and matching bowls made by America's great art potteries also appeal to the armies of collectors searching for Cowan, Roseville, Rookwood, or Weller pieces. (Pottery collectors want both pieces, while frog fans often pass on the 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 pieces pair a dancing lady with some animal friends; 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.

How to Display and Use Flower Frogs

Like displaying a collection of milk glass or bud vases, flower frogs of any design are as pretty on a shelf waiting for your next bouquet as they are filled with pristine blooms. "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."

But the practicality of flower frogs also makes them an unusually useful collectible to acquire. "They have real utility; they are not just art for art's sake," adds Sommer. Many collectors love the idea of a collectible that looks like a charming knickknack—until you bring out the snapdragons and put it to work.

Using Flower Frogs in Arrangements

How you use flower frogs in arrangements depends on the type you have, but the process is straightforward: Simply add them to the bottom of a bowl or vase and stick stems onto the pins or into the holes.

Where to Find Flower Frogs

Bull says the market for frogs "started moving briskly a few years ago," but 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."

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