‘bread and roses’: meaning and origin

The phrase bread and roses is used to express the belief that everyone should have access not only to basic sustenance, but also to the finer things in life, such as education, art, literature, etc.
—Cf. also the phrase bread and circuses.

As an adaptation from the suffragist slogan Bread for all, and Roses too, the phrase bread and roses was coined in 1911—cf. below. However, I have found an early occurrence of bread and roses, denoting material and spiritual fulfilment, in Rambles in the Old World—No. 18, by a certain F. W. Damon, of Berlin, published in The Friend (Honolulu, Hawaii) of Monday 1st July 1878—the following passage is about the Wartburg, a castle in Thuringia, Germany:

One gallery, the “Elizabeth Gallery,” brings to our remembrance the pure and beautiful life of a pious lady who once lived in this castle on the Wartburg, and whose piety and noble, generous life won for her the title of St. Elizabeth. She was the wife of one of the Thuringian Landgraves, and devoted her life to holy living, so that her name came to be loved and cherished throughout the land, and after her death, at the early age of twenty-three, pilgrims from all parts of Europe visited her shrine at Marburg. Of her this legend has come to us, which I am going to give as Elsé tells it in the “Chronicles of the Schönberg-Cotta Family” 1: “The good Landgravine’s husband did not quite like her giving so much to the poor, because she was so generous that she would have left the treasury bare, so she used to give her alms unknown to him. But on this day, when she was giving away those loaves to the beggars at the castle gate, he happened suddenly to return, and finding her occupied in this way, he asked her rather severely what she had in her apron. She said, ‘Roses!’ ‘Let me see,’ said the Landgrave. And God loved her so much that, to save her from being blamed, he wrought a miracle. When she opened her apron, instead of the loaves she had been distributing there were beautiful flowers.” I am afraid, sweet Saint Elizabeth, that Protestant moralists might find much in this legend to frown at. Perhaps so; but they cannot take from this old castle on the hill the fragrance of your gentle and devoted life, and I would fain add your name to that list of noble, saintly women who have been the brightest ornaments of our race, who have brought for our needs and wants, for our hunger of body and soul, both bread and roses!

1 Chronicles of the Schönberg-Cotta Family, first published in 1862, by the English author Elizabeth Rundle Charles (1828-1896).




The phrase bread and roses was adapted from Bread for all, and Roses too, a slogan in the fight for women’s rights. This slogan is first recorded in the following from Getting Out the Vote: An Account Of a Week’s Automobile Campaign by Women Suffragists, by the U.S. suffragist Helen M. Todd (April 1, 1870 – August 15, 1953), published in The American Magazine (New York: The Phillips Publishing Company) of September 1911:

We had breakfast next morning at the usual hour of 6 a.m., in the old farm kitchen with its big black cook stove, its centerpiece of the lady slipper flowers on the table, and its back door opening on a yard full of hollyhocks. Maggie ate with us. “If you want to know what I liked the best of all in the whole meetin’,” she said, “it was that about the women votin’ so’s everybody would have bread and flowers too.” “Now, that’s what mother took a fancy to,” said my hostess. “Mother’s close on to ninety-two come next birthday, and I thought I would make her a birthday present of a sofa pillow with votes for women embroidered on it, but she took such a fancy to this ‘Bread and Flowers’ idea that I’m going to ask you to do me the favor to step into Marshall Field’s and get that motto stamped on a pillow and send it to me.” […]
The flowers they gave me when I left have faded; and the paper of prize hollyhock seeds bestowed upon me to plant in my backyard have never been planted, as my only backyard is the fire escape. But my heart is still warm with the memory of friendship of these down-State women.
I saw that Mother Jones’ 2 pillow was sent to her with the inscription, “Bread for all, and Roses too.” No words can better express the soul of the woman’s movement, lying back of the practical cry of “Votes for Women,” better than this sentence which had captured the attention of both Mother Jones and the hired girl, “Bread for all, and Roses too.” Not at once; but woman is the mothering element in the world and her vote will go toward helping forward the time when life’s Bread, which is home, shelter and security, and the Roses of life, music, education, nature and books, shall be the heritage of every child that is born in the country, in the government of which she has a voice.
There will be no prisons, no scaffolds, no children in factories, no girls driven on the street to earn their bread, in the day when there shall be “Bread for all, and Roses too.”
To help to make such a civilization possible is the meaning of “Votes for Women.” It was the power of this idea which sent the women of Illinois “down State” on their automobile campaign.

2 Mary G. Harris Jones (1837-1930), known as Mother Jones, was an Irish-born U.S. labour organiser.

The following reaction to Helen M. Todd’s story is from The Montclair Times (Montclair, New Jersey) of Saturday 16th September 1911:

Miss Helen M. Todd, in an argument for woman’s suffrage in the “American Magazine,” says that as a result of the triumph of this movement, there will be no prisons, no scaffolds, no children in factories, no girls driven on the street to earn their bread in the day when there shall be “bread for all and roses, too.” For a wholesale renovation of society by act of parliament, give us the progressive women. It is beautiful to see such enthusiasm. May it never fail to bubble!

The slogan Bread for all, and Roses too inspired the U.S. author James Oppenheim (1882-1932) to compose the following poem, originally published in The American Magazine (New York: The Phillips Publishing Company) of December 1911:

“Bread for all, and Roses, too”—a slogan of the women in the West

As we come marching, marching, in the beauty of the day,
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill-lofts gray
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,
For the people hear us singing, “Bread and Roses, Bread and Roses.”

As we come marching, marching, we battle, too, for men—
For they are women’s children, and we mother them again.
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes—
Hearts starve as well as bodies: Give us Bread, but give us Roses.

As we come marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient song of Bread;
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew—
Yes, it is Bread we fight for—but we fight for Roses, too.

As we come marching, marching, we bring the Greater Days—
The rising of the women means the rising of the race—
No more the drudge and idler—ten that toil where one reposes—
But a sharing of life’s glories: Bread and Roses, Bread and Roses.

The phrase bread and roses was further popularised by the so-called Bread and Roses Strike, the textile strike which took place in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in January-March 1912, and which became associated with workers’ rights to roses (beauty) as well as bread (sustenance).

But this phrase had already occurred in the column Woman’s World, by Margaret Bailey Pelton, published in the Fresno County Enterprise (Selma, California) of Thursday 25th January 1912—this is what Margaret Bailey Pelton wrote after quoting James Oppenheim’s poem:

Ida Tarbell in writing of the “Uneasy Woman,” in January American 3, is not adding to her well-earned fame, surely we know that howevere [sic] she be characterized that it was this same “uneasy” woman, who has done things. Your contentedly, indifferent woman who can sit quietly in her little corner and knit sweet honey thoughts into the warp and woof of life, regardless of homeless women and toil-stunted little children, has never moved a cog in the vast machinery of progress.
“Uneasy women” is but another name for discontented women, not discontented, perhaps with their own lot, but, discontented, uneasy, over a state of society that permits so much injustice and wrong. Yes, it is the “uneasy woman” that is bringing brighter days, for surely we know that the “rising of the women means, the rising of the race, and the poets’ “Bread and Roses” stands for a brighter, broader life, where the most obscure woman and the weakest little child as a part of the great family of life shall not have to stand in the bread line or seek the soup kitchen, but each in her place shall have her opportunity, and be directed into such channels of usefulness as they are best fitted to fill. No more the drudge and idler, but a sharing of life’s openings both as to labor and learning.

3 This refers to The Uneasy Woman, by the U.S. journalist Ida M. Tarbell (1857-1944), published in The American Magazine (New York: The Phillips Publishing Company) of January 1912.

The metaphor conveyed by the phrase bread and roses then occurs in An Apostle of Peace, by Albert Edwards, published on Saturday 2nd March 1912 in The Coming Nation, a Socialist newspaper produced in Girard, Kansas:

In a sudden exaltation she went on to portray her hope—the dream of a Free Russia. A great people—millions on millions—living together in peace and plenty, a commonwealth where leisure and culture were the assured right of all. She dreamed not only of bread, but of roses, for everybody.

One thought on “‘bread and roses’: meaning and origin

  1. you forgot to mention there was an entire ‘circus’ aptly named the ‘bread and roses strike’. It was an early false flag for the labor movement and suffragists, featured an early margaret sanger and the
    Socialist/ IWW team. There is an ongoing debate about how the incident got its name. I think ithe poet is the before the others in this timeline but IMO that is only foreshadowing. Bread and roses has been on the shelf for alot longer than anyone suspected. I’m writing a paper featuring this subject If you’d be interested in reading it send me an email. thanx for the post!

    Liked by 1 person

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