The surprising story of the Violet Capital of the World Rhinebeck, New York
In the Gilded Age and beyond, high fashion decreed that violets were the flower of choice for Valentine's Day, Easter, and a fragrant corsage. At its height, in the years before World War I, Rhinebeck, New York, growers shipped millions of sweet violets (viola odorata) to New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago and beyond.
The history of Dutchess County violets includes the first commercial cultivars brought over after the Civil War by British brothers William and George Saltford, and the “Violet Kings” like Julius Vonder Linden, A.E. Coon and the Trombini Brothers. Dutchess County, New York, was known as the violet belt, and Rhinebeck was the buckle on the belt. At one time nearly 400 violet houses dotted Rhinebeck and surrounding villages supplying 25% of the U.S. violet crop. Cultivars like Marie Louise and Swanley White were very popular, and large fragrant corsages were the preferred flower for the Harvard-Yale football game, and the National Horse Show.
Sweet Violets also explores the mythology and history surrounding violets through the use of Greek lyric poetry, Native American tales and stories of historical figures like Napoleon and Frederic Chopin. A clinical herbalist introduces and explains the medicinal and culinary properties of cultivated and wild violets.
But fashions change, scandals erupt, costs explode, and a vibrant business can disappear. When Victorian styles gave way to more comfortable clothes for women, large violet corsages had no place to be pinned. In 1927, the Broadway production, The Captive, scandalized the public with a story of lesbian lovers, whose symbol of commitment was violets. It became politically incorrect to wear violets, and apart from the surge in violet sales to lesbians, the industry took a big hit.
Violets also had their champions like growers who won flower show prizes to high society women like Mrs. Vincent Astor and notably First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Mrs. Roosevelt carried large corsages of Dutchess County violets at FDR's inaugurations. Other corsage flowers like roses, carnations and orchids became available and popular. The previously dependable violet business began to dry up. By 1979 the last of the Rhinebeck commercial violet growers closed up shop. Now, one lonely row of cultivated Frey's Fragrant violets remains in Dutchess County's Battenfled anemone greenhouses. Apart from a few dozen corsages at Valentine's day, the Battenfeld crop is destined for gourmet salads and pastry decorations.
Sweet Violets includes vintage photographs and postcards, rare film footage,19th century music and literature. All these, plus interviews with historians and commercial growers, tell the neglected story of sweet violets and their effect on a small Hudson Valley town.