Rhinebeck, NY: Violet Capital of the World; Sweet Violets Documentary
No shrinking violet: Violets were once the nation’s most popular flower — and Rhinebeck was the violet capital of the world
Postcards courtesy of Tobe Carey
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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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