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© 2000 All Rights Reserved.

Volume 1, Number 4
Autumn 2000
On line Version


The Violets Of Dutchess County
By  Norma Beredjiklian.

The author wishes to extend very special thanks and recognition to:

Mrs. Kay Verrilli (Director, Museum of Rhinebeck History),
Mr. Richard Battenfeld (Fred W. Battenfeld @ Sons),
Mr. Spencer Ainsley from The Poughkeepsie Journal and
Mrs. Annebelle Rice, AVS President.

They have all been instrumental in providing archival materials, recollections, photographs and all manners of assistance for this brief history of violet production in Dutchess County.

            In 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.


Postcard Of Linden Greenhouse
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 Catskills Mountains.

             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 spider

            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 feeding system.

Violet Grower Richard Battenfield
Richard Battenfeld preparing a corsage
of violets in his Milan greenhouse.
Photograph by Cindy Reiman (1996)
By permission of The Poughkeepsie Journal,
Poughkeepsie, NY

             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, fast work.

             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 were:

'Swanley White' (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 then available.

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

Brief Revival

            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.

Photo of President and First Lady F.D. Rosevelt
President Roosevelt and Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, Washington, DC 1941

             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' cultivar.

             --"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?

© 2000 Norma Beredjiklian
For The American Violet Society
All Rights Reserved



1 Barbara Thompson - Sweet Violets, Year Book, Dutchess County Historical Society (1972)
2 Samuel D. Mc Coy - Violet Village, Woman's Day, March 1955
3 Amy Vanderbilt - Business in Blue, The Christian Science Monitor Magazine Section, September 18, 1948
4 New Yorker, March 28, 1940
5 Rhinebeck Violet Troubles - The Rhinebeck Gazette, February 21, 1914
6 Diana Souhami - Mrs. Keppel and Her Daughter - Flamingo/HarperCollins - London (1997) p. 239
7 Harpers Bazaar - The Story of Violets - November 1934
8 Herb Saltford - Hudson Valley "Pastimes" - April 1990
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