The white and purple flowers that will soon be proliferating in the woods, fields and yards of the mid-Hudson Valley were once an important part of the Dutchess County economy. Tobe Carey’s film Sweet Violets, the latest in a series of documentaries that he has made that recapture lost chapters of local history, tells the story of a once-vibrant violet-growing industry through vintage photographs and postcards, archival film footage and period music and literature.
From the late Victorian era up to World War I, violets were all the rage: the choice flower for romance or church, Valentine’s Day or Easter. Back in those days, women wore corsages, and a full-flowered violet cluster pinned to one’s breast was a necessary accoutrement for all sorts of outings and events, from the Harvard/Yale football game to the National Horse Show. A quarter of the nation’s violets were grown in Dutchess County, whose soil is uniquely suited to the plant. Two British brothers built the first greenhouse for growing the flowers in the area after the Civil War, and hundreds of greenhouses subsequently proliferated in the county, with nearly 400 located in Rhinebeck and the surrounding towns at the industry’s peak. The blooms were shipped by the millions to large East Coast cities, Chicago and beyond.
When looser, more casual clothing came into fashion in the 1920s, the corsage became obsolete and violets hopelessly old-fashioned. But it was a 1927 Broadway play titled The Captive that marked the end: In the play, the violet symbolized the illicit love between two lesbians, and after that, a respectable woman wouldn’t be caught dead with a violet corsage pinned to her lapel – although Eleanor Roosevelt, loyal to the industry that had once flourished just north of her home at Hyde Park, carried large corsages of violets to FDR’s inauguration.
It’s a story that has fascinated local audiences. “The response has been tremendous,” said Carey. “Seems there is a great interest in local history, and even a greater one in ‘lost histories’ like the story of violet-growing in and around Rhinebeck and throughout Dutchess County.”
Sweet Violets will be shown May 18 at the Mountaintop Historical Society in Haines Falls and May 20 at Upstate Films in Woodstock. The DVD is available for $19.95 at www.sweetviolets.com and is also sold at a host of local retailers, including Jarita’s Florist, the Golden Notebook, Catskill Art and Office Supply, Bistro to Go, the Parent Teacher Store and Adams Fairacre Farms in Kingston and Woodstock, along with the Arts Society of Kingston and Wonderland Florist, Battenfeld’s Greenhouse, Oblong Books and Upstate Films/Rhinebeck in Dutchess County.
Carey is next tackling the subject of Catskill railroads, partly in response to local demand. If you have historical or contemporary photos related to the subject, he’d love to hear from you; send an e-mail to email@example.com. Visit www.willowmixedmedia.org for more information. For more information on Sweet Violets, visit www.documentaryworld.com/sweet_violets.html.