One of the best things about living in the Hudson Valley is its rich and colorful history. The past is ever-present here. But that history is so deep, sometimes it can get buried and forgotten. Literally.
They say that if you dig in just about any yard in Rhinebeck, you’ll find bits of broken glass, which are remnants of old greenhouses. Like Native American arrowheads or Dutch pottery shards, the glass points back to a time that most current residents don’t know about. This, though, is a much more recent time — the late 1800s to the mid-1900s — when Rhinebeck and its surrounds were the center of a huge, national, now-forgotten industry. An industry based on a shy little flower: the violet.
From the Gilded Age through the Depression, the violet was the world’s most popular flower, a symbol of the height of fashion. And Dutchess County was considered the “violet belt” — with Rhinebeck its buckle. The town was known as the Violet Capital of the World; its major growers — known as the Violet Kings — and smaller producers supplied about 25 percent of the nation’s violets.
Horse-drawn carts filled with violets, which were shipped around the country and used for Easter corsages
Tobe Carey didn’t. The filmmaker and owner of Willow Mixed Media — which focuses on local histories of our region — was looking for a project when he was reminded of something he had been told years earlier. “About 10 years ago, [late folk singer] Artie Traum’s wife asked if I knew about Rhinebeck and violets,” says Carey, 69, of Glenford, Ulster County. “I didn’t pay much attention. Then last January she reminded me of it. I wanted a smaller project, and this seemed worth looking into.”
His research took him to, among other places, the Museum of Rhinebeck History, whose curator and former president, Steven Mann, did know about this history. The museum had an exhibit on the subject in the late 1990s. “We have hundreds of items on violets — it makes up probably five percent of our entire collection,” he says. But he acknowledges that most people in the region have no clue about this history, and hopes that Carey’s film, Sweet Violets, will renew interest.
Through vintage photographs and postcards, archival film, period popular music and literature, and interviews with historians and the descendents of the area’s largest growers (some of whom remember working in the greenhouses as children), Carey weaves a story that moves from ancient Greece and Rome through Europe and Dutchess County, touching on characters — both real and fictional — as wide-ranging as the Greek Muses, Sappho, Napoleon Bonaparte, Frederic Chopin, and Eleanor Roosevelt.
The local connection begins in the post-Civil War 1800s, when a gardener named William Saltford imported violets from England for estates in the area. His brother, George, took some of the plants to Rhinebeck to start his own business, where they seemed, for still unknown reasons, to love the town’s soil, and to flourish.
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Postcards from the past: The exterior (above) and interior (below, right) of the impressive Von der Linden greenhouse in Rhinebeck, circa 1910
Postcards courtesy of Tobe Carey
During the Gilded Age, violets were the flower of choice among the rich, particularly coveted on holiday corsages for Valentine’s Day and Easter. The violet business boomed. At its height, in the years before World War I, perhaps 400 violet greenhouses sprouted in Rhinebeck — the town became known as the Crystal City because of the glare reflecting off the top of them — and in nearby towns like Red Hook, Fishkill, and Hyde Park. During the Easter season, more than a million blooms would be shipped by train — one was named the “Violet Special” — to New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago. For the preppies and their dates attending the Harvard-Yale football game or the National Horse Show, only a violet corsage would do.
The area’s biggest growers, the Violet Kings, included Julius Von der Linden; E.A. Coon; and the Trombini Brothers, who had 18 greenhouses of their own. The work was tough. Intense labor was required to grow, hand-pick, bunch, box, and ship the blooms; and the temperature and humidity in the greenhouses, which were heated by primitive coal-burning stoves, had to be constantly monitored. But it was still lucrative — for a while.
As with most fashion statements, this one faded. In the 1920s, Victorian esthetics gave way to modern, more-casual and comfortable clothing styles. Big, bulky corsages had no place on a flapper dress, and the violet became known as “your grandmother’s flower.” There was a brief rebound in the 1930s, thanks mainly to the first Mrs. Vincent Astor and to Eleanor Roosevelt. A big fan of the flower and a champion of local industry, the First Lady wore large corsages of Dutchess County violets at FDR’s inaugurations.
But the resurgence did not last. The violet industry sputtered due to reasons both scandalous and economic. The scandal came in the form of a 1927 Broadway play called The Captive. The plot centered around a love triangle concerning a man, his wife, and her female lover, whose symbol of commitment was violets. The play closed after five months, but one of its lasting effects was to make violets anathema to “correct” society (lesbians bought them in droves, however).
Steven Mann thinks the scandal “was only the fourth or fifth most important reason” for the industry’s demise. First came fashion changes, followed more dramatically by industrialization during the 1940s and 1950s, which offered farmers and their workers a far easier way to make more money. “Why work so hard for 10 hours a day when you can make triple the money sitting behind a desk or working on the assembly line?” Mann asks. “One researcher says the industry really died because of the growth of IBM in the area.” Those who did stay in the flower business moved toward blooms like anemones and roses, which were not only more popular but easier and less costly to grow.
By 1979 the last commercial violet growers in Rhinebeck went out of business. Today, only one local grower, Battenfeld’s in Milan, continues the tradition, planting one row of cultivated violets every year — many of which now go to culinary establishments for gourmet salads and decorations. Says Fred Battenfeld, in Carey’s film, “I don’t want to lose that part of the area’s history.”
A history that, thanks to Sweet Violets, more of us now know.
Tobe Carey’s film, Sweet Violets, is available for sale at www.documentaryworld.com. Catch a screening of the film at the Mountain Top Historical Society in Haines Falls on May 18 (www.mths.org) and Upstate Films in Woodstock on May 20. Click here to view a clip from the movie.
The Museum of Rhinebeck History has mounted an exhibit, “Sweet Violets of Rhinebeck,” about the violet industry. A special opening reception, free to the public, takes place on May 19 from 2-4 p.m. at the museum. The museum is open Saturdays and Sundays, 2-4 p.m., from May 19-Sept. 30 (closed Aug. 25-26). 7015 Rte. 9, Rhinebeck. 845-871-1798 or http://rhinebeckmuseum.com