Rhinebeck: The Violet Capital of the World
February 17, 2022
Imagine that you are a pilot soaring over the emerald fields of Dutchess County in the late 19th century. Beneath you are acres and acres of rolling hills and fields, little houses and streams. But as you near a town called Rhinebeck the landscape beneath you begins to change. The lush fields are now covered in glistening, and shimmering structures; the reflection of the radiant sun on these dazzling constructions make the town look like a city made of crystals. As you swoop down to investigate the view you see that these are not the forgotten gems of some greedy dragon, but rather rows and rows of gleaming greenhouses that house treasured violets.
Violets have always been sought after; since Ancient Greek times, when Artemis’ nymphs would wear the silky blossoms to ward off unwanted suitors, the flowers have been associated with modesty, truth, wisdom, and humility. Due to these associated traits and their romantic heart-shaped petals, violets were all the rage in the late 1800s and early 1900s. During this time, Victorian women would wear bouquets of about fifty violets fastened to their dresses or hats. Because of this fad, the production of violets became a profitable business and folks in Rhinebeck soon caught on to this thanks to a man named George Saltford.
In the late 1800’s George Saltford immigrated to Rhinebeck and began growing violets on his own and selling them locally. He later wrote a little book about his endeavor called “How to Make Money Growing Violets”; little did he know that this merely fifty page book would inspire a whole town to start growing violets themselves.
After the publication of “How to Make Money Growing Violets”, a violet growing craze began in the picturesque town of Rhinebeck. Soon local homeowners began erecting greenhouses in their backyards intending to make a little pocket change growing violets. Because of its sheer number of growers and impressive violet output Rhinebeck was eventually coined “The Violet Capital of the World”.
During the industry’s peak between 1910 and 1920 there were somewhere between 300 to 400 greenhouses in the town of Rhinebeck. In 1907, Dutchess County garnered one million dollars of revenue from the growing of violets and half of this amount went to Rhinebeck.
Even after the peak of the industry, influential women like Eleanor Roosevelt helped to popularize violets by wearing a bouquet of Marie Louise violets at two of FDR’s inaugurations.
However, like all good things, the violet industry of Rhinebeck eventually came to an end. There was not just one catalyst that set off the decline of Rhinebeck’s violet industry, but rather a series of causes.
Growing these delicate blossoms requires an immense amount of care. Violets require moisture, shade, and a temperature between 40-60 degrees in order to flourish. Because Rhinebeck is located in the Northeast, with fickle temperatures ranging from single digits to the mid 90s, maintaining such an even temperature is no small feat. In order to achieve this steady temperature, growers would have stokehouses at the end of their greenhouses to keep the flowers warm. The fires in these stokehouses needed large amounts of coal as well as almost constant attention.
Mike Frazier, member of the Rhinebeck Historical Society, remarked that: “The volume of coal that Saltford talks about in his book about how to make money growing violets is about 1 railroad coal car for a typical greenhouse for a season. That’s a lot of coal! … Depending on the size of the burner… you’d have to go fill it every few hours. So someone had to do that at 11pm, 3 am, 6 am, and 9 am.”
Having someone to tend to the fire every few hours during the winter was simply not viable for household growers. Problems with temperature were not limited to the winter season either. In the summer, violets needed to be shielded from the sun as it’s rays were often too intense for the delicate blossoms and they would shrivel up and die if not protected by the shade.
In short, it was just too much of a hassle for everyday homeowners to maintain acceptable conditions for the fussy plants.
In addition to problems on the production side of the industry, in the 20th century styles began to change and violets were no longer as desirable. Women no longer wore tailored dresses made out of thick material and instead turned to looser garb made out of thinner fabric. This meant that their clothes could no longer support heavy violet bouquets and lighter orchids became the ornament of choice for most women.
Eventually, violet growing became a burden for most individual growers rather than a way to supplement a family’s income. So, most growers disassembled their greenhouses and gave up the violet business. Today, the only violet grower in Rhinebeck is Battenfeld Farms just outside of town.
Though the industry is long dead, remnants of Rhinebeck’s former glory as the “Violet Capital of the World” are still present. In the backyards of some houses on Mulberry Street and Platt Avenue you might even still find broken pieces of the shimmering greenhouses that gave Rhinebeck the name “The Crystal City”.