April 16, 2014

The Garden Club of Princeton Marks French Market Centennial

Back in an earlier era, The Garden Club of Princeton’s French Market was stocked with truckloads of blooms brought by gardeners from estates in and around the town. Most of those stately homes are gone now; some have been converted to other uses. 

So these days The Garden Club’s spring and fall market sells flowers and plants grown by members themselves, along with some bought from other sources. The current season begins Friday with a special Easter-themed market, the first of six to take place through May 23. Themes for upcoming markets will include lilacs, daffodils, tulips, and succulents.

The Garden Club is celebrating the centennial of the market this year, though there is some quibbling about just when this Princeton tradition began. “If you look back in the minutes, you see that in the year 1914 they discussed that they’d like to be able
to start a market,” said Pet Peters, a longtime member of the club. “In 1915, they had sort of a spring fete, a fair to raise money for various things around town. But it really was 1918 that it got going.”

Members agree that 2014 is the appropriate year to celebrate the centennial of the idea for the market. The first was held on the grounds of Garrett Place, now Princeton University’s Palmer House, and its proceeds went toward supporting the community’s library and other civic projects. The funds earned also went toward paying half the salary of a “nature” teacher for the Princeton Elementary School, according to a history of the market compiled by Sandi Tatnall.

Victims of World War I in Europe were also beneficiaries. The second market was held in Thomson Hall, now the site of the former Borough Hall, and included music, dancing, food, and more. The project ceased for a few years when the war escalated.

As the history details, “A surge of sympathy for many friends in France prompted the Club to send donations to support the French War Relief. Having the same objective, some professors’ wives began selling flowers in stalls set up near the site of our present French Market and we began assisting them. These stalls, called “The French Flower Market,” resembled the flower stalls outside L’Église de la Madeleine in France.”

Members of the club adopted the name for the market, and it stuck. By 1932, the market was a permanent fixture at it’s present location, known as Mercer Island Park. There have been renovations and facelifts over the years. A plaque was placed at the site in 1997. Beneficiaries have included the Princeton Hospital, the Community Canning Kitchen, Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association, and The Red Cross, among others.

The market is the club’s oldest continuous fundraiser. In addition to selling flowers, members also hold workshops and special events. On Mother’s Day, some of the newer members are planning to lead a workshop on putting together special baskets.

“It’s all about learning and sharing our love of gardening together,” said member Lanny King. “We’re always being taught new things.”