March 1979, newspaper readers in both New York City and the
Hudson River Valley's Dutchess County towns were made aware
that one last chapter in their region's unique violet history
had just been written. The New York Times' headline "Last
Major Violet Grower in East Decides to Fed Out of
Business" spoke volumes about what this precious crop
represented for more than a century to the nosegay trade in
the City and other U.S. metropolitan areas. The Trombini
family was now shutting down operations after holding the fort
almost single-handedly from 1948 through 1974 and producing,
at the height of their business, 6 million plants in 18
greenhouses. -"There's no great demand for violets
anymore"-Eugene Trombini reminded everyone while voicing
his concern that future generations would never know the
thrill of giving or receiving a bouquet of violets.
The papers' story contrasted sharply with the remarkable
violet experience lived by the people of Dutchess County in
New York State. For over 90 years, every spring, the towns of
Poughkeepsie, Milan, Red Hook and Rhinebeck produced what was
then called the "purple thunderstorm"1 spreading to
other counties and cities, and in the golden years, earning
this region almost one million dollars in annual revenue.
Rhinebeck itself was and is still known as the undisputed
Violet Capital of the World. Proud of its past, the Museum of
Rhinebeck History has recently become the repository of all
documents pertaining to this industry. For our benefit, the
archival materials reveal the dedication and hardships of
dozens of families connected in as many decades in one common
purpose: to grow violets commercially and in the largest scale
known in history.
Von der Linden greenhouse
In the 1880s, William G. Saltford, an Englishman and Rhinebeck
resident, joined efforts with his brother and gardener, George
Saltford, to import a double violet, a lovely "parma"
called 'Marie Louise' and start raising violets from this
stock. Their success was enormous. In 1902, George Saltford,
turned violet specialist and Rhinebeck's "violet
king," cemented the notion of violet growing as a
profitable business by publishing the popular How to Make
Money Growing Violets (The Violet Company, New York). Anyone
that could got into commercial violet growing; right at hand
was the opportunity to satisfy New York City's insatiable
craving for this flower and make a profit. And because violets
grow in cold weather and the height of the season was between
February and April, the new growers realized they needed
greenhouses, and fast. Newly available greenhouses - from old
estates greatly affected by a regional real estate decline in
the early 1900s-- were quickly purchased and converted into
violet beds. According to the 1912 American Florist Company
Directory, that year, the whole area surrounding Rhinebeck
counted with 121 greenhouses, operating 238 violet houses.
Among the most successful growers the list included the
Saltford, Coon, Battenfeld, and Von der Linden families.
The "Blue Gold" Crop
The success of the "blue gold" crop (as violets were
then called) was based on the fact that these flowers grew
very happy in this New York State region due to some
mysterious quality in the area's soil. Proof of that was that
violet stock imported from Europe adapted and bloomed in this
part of America like never before. Others liked to point out
the goodness of Dutchess County's climate, with its "cold
nights and sunny days" as well as its proximity to the
Whatever the reason, and as a rule, local violet growers
preferred loamy soil heavily enhanced by horse manure which
odor, during the harvesting season, competed with the violets'
fragrance. One paramount requirement in violet cultivation was
the annual cleaning of the soil in the violet beds to get rid
of the dreaded nematodes (round worm) that fed on the runners.
Growers also had difficulties with Botritis, a type of fungus
infection that was extremely difficult to combat, in addition
to the well-known green aphids ("green fly") and red
The next main concern was to prevent the violet beds from
freezing. On average, temperatures were maintained between 40(
and 50( F. Such heating needs allowed for the creation of
another profitable business: the manufacturing of greenhouses,
particularly those made of the now extinct Florida Swamp
Cypress wood. These "houses" were heated by a
convection system that used coal-fired furnaces to heat the
water that would rise from the furnace room and enter the flow
pipes running down the center of the house through a gravity
Richard Battenfeld preparing a corsage
of violets in his Milan greenhouse.
Photograph by Cindy Reiman (1996)
of The Poughkeepsie Journal,
Richard Battenfeld, (F. W. Battenfeld & Sons) scion
of one of the area's first families of violet growers, recalls
that after the flowers had grown sufficiently in size, the
beds were mulched with a combination of straw and manure to
take care of the weed problem. Harvesting would start in late
September and continue well into Easter, but seldom around
Mother's Day unless it was an unusual cold spring. While most
of the violet houses employed regular help they also made use
of part-time help, hiring women willing to supplement the
family income. "Violet picking" also attracted the
local children who were encouraged by the possibility of
making almost three dollars a day in exchange for their hard,
Harvesting methods resembled those practiced in Europe such as
placing boards (planks) across the violet beds. Lain on the
planks the workers picked as many blossoms as they could hold
in one hand, and then would tie up the violet bunches with a
string. - "No daydreaming in a sea of violets for these
workers. Picking on both sides of planks, every move is a
balancing act," - noted Samuel D. McCoy in 1955.2 A fast
picker would gather 5,000 single violets a day.3
The flowers were next taken to the packing room and placed in
heavy cardboard boxes, 9 inches deep, displaying the name of
the grower. Box sizes varied according to quantities shipped,
that is, from 500 to 3,000 violets ready to be sent to the
railway express office for shipment to the City or beyond.
During heavy production times, most "violet houses"
shared with each other the transportation costs to the train
station in horse and wagon trips through dirt roads.
As a cut flower to be made into nosegays or bouquets, violets
were quite popular in the early 1900s, however, much of their
success was intimately connected to the type of cultivars used
for the top product that was sent to the florist market.
Commercial acceptance and customer satisfaction revolved
around plant quality and durability, and Dutchess County
growers made sure their violet stock was the best available.
Next to the original 'Marie Louise' other popular violets
(Conte di Brazza) also known as the white parma;
the lovely, fragrant semi-double 'Princess Mary'
introduced by Nelson A. Coon in 1926 and winner of the
New York Horticultural society's award; and
'Frey's Fragrant' a 'single' violet of deep
purple color and long stem but lacking fragrance.
In the early 1900s New York and other metropolitan areas
around the country underwent violet-mania. Violets were sold
in the streets and in the flower shops. They were a fixture at
Yale University's ball games, and popular in many cities'
Easter Parades, a practice that continued well into the 40s.4
New York society ladies wore them on their bosoms and
debutante girls carried violet nosegays to the Season's balls.
Aristocrats like Prince Serge Obolensky who fancied posies on
his lapel were instrumental in making fashion statements while
notorious chorus girl, Evelyn Nesbitt, wore violets on her hat
every time she attended her husband's trial for the murder of
her lover, the famous architect Sanford White. In those years,
violet craze extended to songs, poetry, art, greeting cards,
toiletries, confectionery and teacups. No other flower could
express such beautiful sentiments as the violet.
Meanwhile, back in the Hudson River Valley areas, the local
newspapers delighted in pointing out to the whole world that
during the season, the streets of Rhinebeck, -- boasting an
eponymous Violet Avenue (now Route 9-G)-- literally smelled of
violets, thanks to violet-filled wagons on their way to the
steamboat landings. The same fragrant air was noted in the
neighboring towns of Red Hook and Milan. In due time, the
perfumed cargo would be shipped to the City of New York by
train and reach other destinations in the fastest possible way
First signs of decline
During and right after World War I violets suffered a setback.
Fashions had changed and those young girls donning light,
liberating chemise dresses "were not interested in
wearing Grandma's flowers," wrote Herb Saltford, George
Saltford's grandson and local historian. The situation got
worse for in addition to war troubles, the appearance of
"black rot" disease resulting from polluted under
soil and infected woodwork in many violet houses became a new,
serious cause for decline. By 1914, the extent of the disease
prompted the Growers' Association to apply for assistance to
the agricultural department of Cornell University (Ithaca, New
York). A professor was sent to the area to try to work out
some remedial action but most growers refused to work with the
scientist and ignored him. After he left, 31 houses closed
down. Only those who proceeded to disinfect their facilities
were able to continue with business.5
Sadly, between 1914 and 1925 many of the small growers went
out of business and their greenhouses were sold to the bigger
concerns such as that of the early 20s new "violet
king" Ethan A. Coon, owner of E.A. Coon & Co. Inc.
E.A.Coon's brother Nelson (eventually America's foremost
violet expert and author) went to England in search of good,
single flower violet varieties to revive their violet stock.
Nelson returned with 'Mrs. David Lloyd George.' He had this
cultivar exhibited in 1925 at the International Flower Show
(New York) where it won the Gold Medal for "outstanding
quality of its blooms, novelty and unique
characteristics." Additional prizes followed at shows in
Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and Philadelphia. Other
"single" varieties introduced at this time were the
'Frey's Fragrant' (from the firm Frey & Frey in Chicago)
and the 'Jamie Higgins,' a strong violet with flowers of a
lilac color. 'Mrs. J.J. Kettle' of a pale blue coloring was
the last addition to the parma collection.
Another trip by Nelson A. Coon to England in 1926 brought to
America the precious 'Princess Mary.' Because of its quality,
beauty and success in the commercial field, this semi-double
violet was to become a favorite among local growers. It also
won medals at the New York Flower Show the following year.
Yet, there was a bigger blow in store for the violet industry.
Broadway's New Empire Theater put on La Captive , a new,
controversial French play by Edouard Bourdet preceded by great
acclaim in France. The American production featured none other
than Basil Rathbone. While the plot presented the usual love
triangle, the lovers this time were "the wife" and a
female friend. In the final act, the characters end their
relationship by exchanging a bunch of violets meant to
symbolize the purity and poignancy of their love. In Paris,
lesbian groups in the audience showed solidarity by ''pinning
violets to their lapels,"6 and belts, however in America,
this novel treatment of forbidden sexual issues was not
welcome. Following heated debates, the New York police shut
down the theater for scandalous behavior, and the ubiquitous,
innocent violets joined the ranks of the "politically
incorrect." -- "Way back in the violet county last
year they were still cursing this play as the knell of the
violet industry"-- affirmed the New York press in 1934.7
During the Depression era, flowers were a luxury not easily
afforded by the population at large. The humble violets were
not the exception and the impact on the industry was to have
much consequence. Fortunately, for another decade and a half,
fashion and tradition would both play a role in the temporary
survival of violets as a crop even though both trends were
signaling troubles in the horizon.
Violets, considered flowers of elegance, were particularly
coveted in Boston, but only on St. Valentine's Day, when they
were displayed as the exquisite touch atop a box of
chocolates, and remained a definite winner all over New
England, and on the other hand, after enjoying supremacy at
Christmas time as a suitable arrangement or offering, they
were taken over, albeit gradually, by the longer lasting and
colorful poinsettias. With regard to their traditional role in
bridal bouquets, the time had also arrived for violets to
endure and share honors with lilies of the valley, and that
newcomer, the white orchid.
Roosevelt and Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, Washington, DC
Notwithstanding the reduced market demands, violet cultivation
in Dutchess County continued, this time generously championed
by Eleanor Roosevelt. Mrs. Roosevelt's predilection for
violets was legendary. The violet bouquets she wore at her
husband's presidential inaugurations came directly from E.A.
Coon & Co.,8 of Rhinebeck, New York, nearby the area the
Roosevelt family called home. Other presidential and official
occasions were equally suitable for violet displays. At an
official visit to America by the then Denmark's Crown Princess
Ingrid, the royal visitor was presented with violet bouquets
by Rhinebeck children dressed in Danish costumes. And
throughout the Roosevelt administrations, the Trombini
establishment supplied the White House with weekly violet
deliveries. The Trombinis status as violet purveyors to the
First Lady continued well into her later years.
There were other celebrities who promoted violets in New York
City and the rest of the country. One such person was Mrs.
Vincent Astor who frequently wore violet corsages, set a new
style and was responsible through the services of Harper's
Bazaar magazine for a modest revival in the early 40s. It all
came about when a photographic trick did not fully show the
blue in violets, and suddenly there was a cry for white
violets and in other colors. For the film, Easter Parade,
Irene, the Hollywood stylist, created a lovely and much
admired "White Violets" dress for Judy Garland, and
up and coming starlet Ava Gardner was photographed on a number
of occasions holding romantic violet bouquets. The demand for
new types and colors of violets sent the Rhinebeck region
abuzz with dreams of glories past.
But it was not to last. In the early 60s, the violet industry
ceased to be. Most Dutchess County growers faced the new times
and moved on, with the exception of a few who out of a sense
of family tradition, continued with very small violet
productions. One of them is Richard Battenfeld , owner of a
successful anemone business who still grows a few hundred
violet flowers per season...for old times' sake, he likes to
say. Mr. Battenfeld's modest violet production pays homage to
a long tradition that refuses to go. Up to this day, he's the
only custodian and source for the old 'Frey's Fragrant'
--"Corsages just don't go with blue jeans, somehow, do
they? - asked Eugene Trombini 20 years ago. The developments
in technology, fashion and design seen in these last two
decades as well as a renewed interest in violets would suggest
an updated answer to Mr. Trombini's candid question: If anything goes with jeans, why not violets?