Martha Van Rensselaer: Family and Consumer Sciences Champion

By Scholl, Jan | Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Martha Van Rensselaer: Family and Consumer Sciences Champion

Scholl, Jan, Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences

Though her name is not well known, Martha Van Rensselaer's work1 has been praised or criticized in nearly every decade since her death, including the most recent decade during which the novel, The Irresistible Henry House (Grunwald, 2010) was published. Martha received many awards during her lifetime; she was recognized as one of the 12 greatest women in the country and among the 50 greatest women of all time.

Martha Van Rensselaer (1864-1932) was born at the end of the Civil War in a remote area of western New York. She was a descendent of one of the earliest families in the United States, a seventh generation relative of a most successful patroon, Killian Van Rensselaer.

Though his feet never touched American soil, in the 160Os, Killian owned what would become nearly half of New York State. He was a diamond and pearl merchant from Amsterdam and one of the founders of the Dutch West India Company. Many of Martha's relatives were in the military; one of them was a general with George Washington in the Revolutionary War.

Martha grew up among authors, homeopathic physicians, and public servants. Her grandparents moved to Randolph, New York by oxen - away from relatives with influence and money in eastern New York. Her father was an insurance adjuster and her mother was deeply religious and community conscious.

Martha was said to be an ordinary student. Perhaps this was because she enjoyed practical jokes and had some disdain for the conventions of the day. Various accounts describe how she "licked her plate clean" at a picnic because the food was so good and (in 1897) wore her father's white linen suit to a party.

After graduation, she taught for 10 years at the Ellington Academy2 in New York and at two Pennsylvania locations - Tidioute and Harrisburg. She achieved her lifelong dream before she was 30 - that of being preceptress (similar to dean of women) at Chamberlain Institute, a military and women's boarding school in Randolph, NY. Martha also worked for one year as a secretary in an organization to help orphans. During summers until 1903, she lectured and coordinated events for teachers at Chautauqua, NY.

In 1893, with support from women in her area and on a ballot with several men, Martha became a school commissioner. She was re-elected, serving two 3 -year terms. Her election was likely bittersweet because she gave up an opportunity to be married. Her intended moved west for health reasons. Her bid for a third term failed, possibly due to the negative press she received before the election. Though she was considered one of the finest school commissioners in the state, she notified her supporters that she was "too busy" with the duties of her office to campaign actively. The newspaper editors were not happy that they had nothing to print and the voters, not knowing how she stood, agreed. She also was involved in a legal situation about a school consolidation that was decided against her in Albany, NY in 1896.

But as things happen, a school chum and fellow Chautauqua teacher, Anna Botsworth Comstock,3 thought Martha might come to Cornell University in 1900 to support nature study work and help publish a children's magazine. Martha was interested, but was concerned about the difficulties of farm women, having met many in her travels to the 153 rural schools in her former commissioner district.

She attended the second and subsequent Lake Placid Conferences4 and learned about the field of home economics. She tried to take related courses at Cornell but found there were none to take. Despite her efforts to apply science to improve the plight of farm families, she was once told by a bacteriologist to "tell women to keep their dish cloths clean because they were nicer that way."

Liberty Hyde Bailey, who was in charge of the overall agriculture and nature study efforts and who had established a farmer's correspondence course at Cornell, thought the time was right to have similar opportunities for farm women. He reasoned that women were crucial to the farm operation because the farmer and his wife were business partners. Women on the farm, however, were saddled with household chores that were extremely exhausting because of the lack of electricity, running water, refrigerators, and other conveniences found more frequently in cities. The work of farmers, on the other hand, benefitted from many innovations.

More than this, Bailey felt there should be academic work in home economics. At least 20 universities had established coursework in this field5 prior to the 20th century. The university president, however, was not supportive. Word got to him that a proposal was in the works to establish a new department. When Bailey and Melvil Dewey6 visited his office, the reaction was negative. Subsequent news articles rang out his view: "Cooks at Cornell - Never! "

Martha continued to support the nature study work and wrote articles for their Boys and Girls magazine.7 Believing that President Schurman was incorrect in his assessment, Bailey sent out a circular letter8 in 1900 asking farmers if their wives might be interested in a correspondence course to make their role as farm wives easier.

Four thousand women responded, at a time when Rural Free Delivery was little more than an experiment.9 Six thousand copies of the first course, Saving Steps, were printed in 1901 and reprinted within a couple of months. The year before, The New York Globe had hired a woman to spend a day wearing a pedometer and she counted 26,000 steps (equivalent to 7 miles) taking care of a husband and a baby.10 Martha based her work on this article and worked to help others reduce their steps and save their strength.

Martha was in the public eye from the beginning. The courses were sent not only to farm women but also to anyone who requested them: clergy, physicians, women's club organizers, and farm organizations such as The Grange. She received many requests but sent few publications out-of-state because of restrictions due to legislative funding in New York. Martha included study questions as part of the farmers' wives correspondence courses. She wrote individual letters - more than 1,200 over a 6-year period - in response to questions or just to be encouraging. The Farmers' Wives Reading Course mailing list eventually reached 20,000 readers. It was cut to zero about the time the governor tried to eliminate the budget for printing in 1918; then, likely because of the publicity, requests shot up to 75,000 and the printing resumed.

With her librarian friends, Annie and Melville Dewey, Martha established rotating libraries of 10-12 books - an early bookmobile that was mailed to farm women in remote areas. Public libraries were accessible only in sizeable towns, and even at these locations, farm wives, dirty from the ride into town, often were forbidden.

Later, Martha established small women's clubs so the members could discuss the content in the correspondence courses and the books they read. Some of these clubs completed grand community projects such as the building of a town hall.

As one farm wife wrote:

I cannot tell you what it means to me to have someone who cares. My life is made up of men, work, mud and more mud. Send me the bulletins and remember me in your prayers.

Some of the women's requests related to farm work and Martha drew support from her agricultural co-workers to answer questions correctly. She received unusual inquiries such as How can I keep my husband from sleeping when he comes in from work?

Although Martha was very popular and was a friend to the farm wife, she had her detractors, including those who felt housework was a genetic talent - or at least learned at a mother's knee. But many women were supportive. As one woman put it:

The faculty at Cornell University believed it necessary for my husband to master the contents of many ponderous books before they considered him fit to feed cattle, horses and pigs judiciously. But when that same man applied for a license to make me his homemaker, he was not asked if I knew how to balance rations correctly. He was not even asked if I knew that each member of every family should eat daily 2 fruits, 2 vegetables, whole grain cereal, whole grain bread, and milk. And yet, how much more important my task than his, for I was to feed human beings, while he was feeding only dumb animals.

The Dallas Morning News (1912) reported an incident that Martha later related at Sage College:

I shall never forget a remark of a poor, wornout slattern of a woman in a slum. She was washing a heap of dishes. She hadn't scraped them first, and her dish water was in consequence thick with grease, lumps of refuse floated on its surface. Plunging her hands into that horrible, lukewarm stew, the woman said to me, "and to think Miss, that I'd ever come to this! Me, that was so highly educated before I was married. I couldn't even fry a steak.

Not everyone is lucky enough to have a mother to train them was Martha's standard reply to her detractors. In addition, science was catching up, providing more practical applications, and household conveniences were coming into vogue. There was something for everyone to learn.

Though it was not formally established by law until 1914, Martha was involved in Cooperative Extension work. Starting in 1900, Martha may have been the first Extension home demonstration specialist. Recognition of Martha's work by Theodore Roosevelt, through her co-worker, Liberty Bailey, chair of the national Country Life Commission,11 led in part to the inclusion of funding for non-formal education of children, youth, and farm families in the Smith-Lever Act.

Martha was asked to speak to audiences of men and women12 throughout New York and in other states as well. She often spoke extemporaneously so the few speeches that still exist are either in newspaper accounts or conference proceedings.

Soon after her correspondence courses started, Martha developed a non-academic winter course similar to those held for farmers. Hers was 2 months long13 and included dozens of well-known lecturers from all over the U.S. When she finally taught within the agriculture curriculum, she had to curtail some of the Extension travel or extend it through the weekend, so she could get back for Tuesday and Thursday classes.14

One of the speakers at the 1906 Winter Course, was Flora Rose, a cultured woman of a wealthy family in Denver, CO, who had graduated from Kansas State College and had completed some graduate work in nutrition at Columbia University. Though raised in privilege, Flora Rose was not enamored with the social constraints of women and wanted to make a difference in this new field of home economics. She wrote a letter to Liberty Bailey expressing her interest. Though it is said both women disliked the other at first, they soon became friends.

Bailey asked the women individually who would make the best director of a new home economics department that finally was being developed in 1907. Each volunteered the other. Rose had the education and Martha had the support of nearly every woman in the state. Flora Rose insisted, "there was no way I was going to take any of that away from her and besides Martha could still obtain the credentials." The exasperated Bailey told them they had a year to decide. But, it did not take them more than a day to report that they would both fill the role of director with equal salaries. Bailey reluctantly agreed, contending that one would eventually resign. Incredibly, each supported the other as director until death - for 25 years!

The women had desks that faced each other so that they could discuss and generate ideas. Though Martha started out in a basement room with barely a chair, a kitchen table, and a file cabinet, together the women purchased equipment and moved into two academic buildings, creating not only a department but also later, a school, and finally a college.

There is still some controversy over whether Martha and Flora were lovers. In the many hours of reading letters and other primary sources, no evidence was found that they were. The few history scholars who have written about Martha fail to note that in addition to her work, she ran a boarding house with additional evening meals served to and paid for by outside guests. Perhaps it was due to their jointly held property - not their home, which was owned by Martha's brother and another couple - but a tea room (which they had bought for students to use in institution management classes) and a vacation property in the Adirondacks, that caused people to wonder. It must have been a nuisance for administrators and co-workers to make sure each woman was invited to every function as one would treat a couple. People grew tired of saying both their names and, in some cases, letters were addressed "Dear Van Rose."

To become academically credible, Martha obtained her bachelor's degree in 1909 while she continued to work. In 1911, both Martha and Flora finally were accepted on the faculty as instructors.15

After establishing a department of home economics and becoming involved in food conservation in New York, Herbert Hoover, then head of the U.S. Food Commission, asked Martha to join the Commission in Washington. She later became its director when Sara Field Splint, editor of Today's Woman, went back to her publishing business in 1917. Martha likely "saved our - and a whole lot of other people's - lunch" during World War I as she was appointed to coordinate federal efforts to ration sugar and wheat and to save beef fat for munitions and fruit pits and nut hulls for gas masks. She recommended the use of chicken fat in cakes16 and might even be responsible for the expression "clean your plate."

Because the U.S. was on strict rations for more than 2 years, she made it possible for Hoover to send food subsidies to Belgium and other European countries where people were starving. Martha coordinated efforts to determine how food could be canned without sugar and how bread would rise without gluten. She managed a cafeteria that operated daily to demonstrate good conservation practices.

Just after the war, Martha and Flora sought funding to become one of five leading child development centers in the U.S. and established a "practice" or home management house where students lived to learn how to run a household.17 The practice house included babies, which was Flora's idea based on her Kansas State College training.18

The legislature had turned her down several times so Martha sought Eleanor Roosevelt's assistance and a grant was obtained from the Laura Spellman Rockefeller Foundation19 to continue to provide child development education at Cornell. Later in the 1920s, with the backing of Governor Franklin Roosevelt and his wife, nearly $1 million in state funds was allocated for a new home economics building on campus, appropriately called Martha Van Rensselaer or MVR Hall.

Herbert Hoover, the Secretary of Commerce in 1923, asked Flora Rose to conduct a study of the nutritional habits and resources of children in Belgium. Martha joined her several months later and served with the American Relief Commission. They met Queen Elizabeth of Belgium to spearhead a child nutrition program. For this effort, they both received a medal: The Chevalier of the Order of the Crown.20

When Flora arrived in Belgium, she purchased "Henri," a Ford she drove to schools to collect data for her project. Both Flora and Martha had learned to drive when the first Extension car was purchased in 1913 at Cornell. Flora usually drove because Martha was known for her lead foot and narrow escapes. After the study concluded in Belgium, they did a little sightseeing throughout Europe. "Henri" gave them the opportunity to visit Holland, the home of Martha's early ancestors, where she was presented with a bouquet of bright red Van Rensselaer dahlias and accepted a family crest, which she later had copied for her Christmas cards. Unfortunately, no traces of her ancestors were to be found except for an old weather vane and an elaborate crypt under a stairway in a nearby church.20

In the early 1920s, a group in Chile was interested in American women and the League of Women Voters was asked to determine the 12 greatest women who were prominent in their fields. Martha was selected in 1923 to represent home economics. It is interesting that a reporter who met her had this to say:

One of the greatest women, Miss Van Rensselaer, walked through the blazing corridor of an uptown hotel at 4 ? clock to meet me. It was a very interesting half minute, with a lesson in it. I don't believe the lady buyers and movie empresses and brokers and drummers and heirs of the idle rich and highly upholstered consorts of the same who hurried or dawdled between the pillars of imitation marble had any suspicion she was so great. She didn't look to one side or the other or to see who might be aware of her presence, or make any noise or disturbance of any kind as one who should say, "This is L" If they had known it, there'd have been a hubbub and a craning of necks. Me, I was somehow looking for an imposing figure of a woman with a good deal of conscious manner and probably enough condescension to make you sorry you came. And it wasn't like that at all. As she picked her way quietly through that garish crowd, I had almost an un-controllable impulse to ask her if she wouldn't let me go put her horse out, so she could stay to supper. She was just "home folks" after all. It was as natural that she should have come to fame by building in a busy world a brand new science of "home economics" as it was that wheat should ripen in the sun.

Martha was recognized in 1925 as being one of the 50 greatest women of all time by the North American Newspaper Alliance and by another national group recognizing women from each state. These honors opened many doors. She shared podiums with such luminaries as Carrie Chapman Catt, Mary Pickford, and Amelia Earhart. (Susan B. Anthony wrote asking her how she did it all.) She was well known to several politicians; in fact, as a result of an afternoon chat, Franklin Delano Roosevelt included her advice in one of his speeches.

Though she belonged to suffragette organizations, Martha did not protest for women's rights. There was one notable exception. The New York Times reported that she was advocating for women judges based on a courtroom incident she witnessed involving a young woman in downtown New York City. On a quieter note, she allowed a woman to stay in her employ after marriage - as an experiment. For the most part and probably due to the rigorous scrutiny of legislative funding, Martha kept her commentary to the health and happiness found in the home and on the farm.

Martha was active in women's clubs and was the first woman from Extension to be president of the American Home Economics Association (1914-1916). She was involved in radio presentations, describing her first broadcast in 1923 as terrifying "being set up in a booth, talking to thousands without an actual audience." She organized train exhibits, wrote and edited several books, and attended conferences. A New York journalist described her this way:

Not even Mrs. Charles Evans Hughes,21 wife of the Republican candidate for the Presidency is more difficult to interview than Miss Van Rensselaer. Every time she has been in this city, a reporter has seized her by the coat tail (figuratively speaking - reporters have manners) as she was flying from committee meeting to committee meeting at some convention she was attending or passed down a lane of admirers waiting outside the door to greet and applaud and question her when she emerged.

She took time away from Cornell in her Food Commission work, but as part of a sabbatical in the mid-1920s, she was paid as an editor and regular columnist for The Delineator, a prominent national magazine for women. A few of her students also contributed articles.

She wrote and edited dozens of correspondence courses and sent out numerous surveys. When asked to head a national commission for housing and child development in 1928, Martha caught flack for sending out a questionnaire (in a franked government envelope) that, among other things, asked people about their sex life. She visited the White House on several occasions, coordinated efforts to obtain a gram of radium for Marie Curie's research, and received an honorary doctorate in pedagogy from the Teacher's College in Albany.

Though she wanted to retire, she told administrators at Cornell that she would stay one more year to finish her work. For a period of time, she had received treatments at a New York hospital. In 1932, she died in her sleep, not knowing her diagnosis - cancer, and within weeks of the cornerstone ceremony that named the building in her honor. (See Brief Timeline of Martha's Life, p. 18.)

If one can glean ideas from her life, it would be that every act set her in good stead for the next. One could say she was a master of the set-up. She was not afraid of hard work and learned from her mistakes. She was fair with her faculty and never forgot the people and institutions that meant so much to her past.22 Former teachers often commented, "watch her smoke" as she could often achieve what others could not conceive. For a short time in 1925, she was endorsed as a candidate for the U.S. Senate.

Martha was also a Molly Brown of sorts.23 Newspapers reported her procurement of farm equipment to rescue 50 women caught under an avalanche in a train car. She was in the train car at the time!

In her nearly 68 years, Martha Van Rensselaer contributed to education, government, young people, farm families, and other groups. Women could now trade drudgery for a little culture and scientific understanding. As Flora Rose once said, "we were always up for whatever might come along."


Martha may have been the first Extension home demonstration specialist.


Martha was recognized in 1 925 as being one of the 50 greatest women of all time.


Martha was the first woman from Extension to be president of the American Home Economics Association (1914-1916).


Brief Timeline of Martha Van Rensselaer's Life

1864 Born June 1 1 in Randolph, NY, to Henry and Arvilla Van Rensselaer

1884 Martha graduates from Chamberlain Institute

1884-93 Secretary to Charles Merrill, Head of Home for Orphaned Children Teaches in Tidioute, PA, Harrisburg, PA, and Ellington, NY

1893 Fulfills dream of becoming preceptress (dean of women) of Chamberlain

1894 and 97 Elected and reelected as School Commissioner of 153 rural schools Made member of State Department of Education

1899 Lost third election as School Commissioner

1900 Hired at Cornell to work with nature study program

1901 Jan. 1 Mailed out first reading course, Saving Steps

1901 Attends her first Lake Placid Conference (first conference in 1899)

1902 Contributes homemaking articles to Boys and Girls (Nature Study) magazine

1903 Mother dies

Begins teaching Tuesday/Thursday short courses, reducing Extension travel

Travels to Guelph, Canada in December

1903-05 Elected fourth President of the Western New York Federation of Women's Clubs

1904-07 Editor and subscription manager oí Boys and Girls magazine

1904 Period of rest and quiet between March and December

1905 First women's course in Home Economics

1906 First Winter School in Home Economics (continued until 1921)

Regular courses taught in Home Economics

1907 Martha and Flora Rose become directors of Home Economics Department

1909 Martha graduates from Cornell with her BA

1911 Martha and Flora become the first women faculty as instructors

1914-1916 Serves as fourth national president of AHEA

1917-18 Martha becomes a director in the U.S. Food Commission during World War I

1919 Manual of Homemaking published

1923 Was designated by the League of Women Voters as one of the 12 Greatest Women in America

1923 First radio address, New York City

1923 Martha and Flora Rose conducted research and met with Queen of Belgium as requested by Herbert Hoover, Received the Chevalier of the Order of the Crown from the King of Belgium

1925 25th celebration of Martha's employment

1929 Received honorary doctorate at the Teacher's College in Albany, NY

1931 Participant in the President's Conference on Home Building and meeting held at her summer island retreat in the Adirondacks

1931 ,Sept. Publishes article, "The White House Conference and Home Economics/' in the Journal of Home Economics

193 1, Nov. Roosevelt sets up the state-wide Relief Administration and Program

1932 Martha dies at New York's St. Luke's Hospital, May 26, of lymphoidal sarcoma just a few weeks short of her 68th birthday. Classes were suspended for the day in her honor.

Funeral services and burial took place in Randolph, NY, May 29

1932 June Cornerstone laid for Martha Van Rensselaer (MVR) Hall at Cornell

1 Only one pamphlet biography and a few articles have been written about her life and work.

2 Known then as "The Box of Knowledge" and built in the shape of a cube, Ellington Academy in Ellington, NY was a highly respected school.

3 Anna was the first female to hold a faculty position at Cornell and, with Martha, was recognized by the League ofWomen Voters as one of theTwelve Greatest Women.

4 There were nine national conferences held to formulate the new study of home economics and the American Home Economics Association from 1889 to 1 909. Those involved in these conferences traveled from all over the U.S to Lake Placid, NY.

5 Also called eugenics, though at that time the connotation was not related to breeding or natural selection.

6 Annie and Melvil Dewey were both librarians. Melvil Dewey is credited with the Dewey Decimal system.

7 Eventually she took over the publication and sold subscriptions.The magazine was published until 1907.

8 A circular letter is a letter written so that it might be sent out several times, from several different people or sent from several locations. It is usually drafted without a date or signature.

9 Rural Free Delivery (RFD) started as a gradual process in the 1 89Os. At the time, there were only 500 miles of paved road in the U.S.

10 Today, 10,000 steps a day are recommended for good health.

11 The Country Life Commission was an effort to show the value of farm living. At the time, farmers were moving to the cities where overcrowding was becoming an issue.

12 It was uncommon for women to speak to groups of both men and women.

13 The winter schools were held in January and February of each year. The speakers came in for a few days or a week. Schedules were sent out so the women knew when to come.

14 With train travel in those days, it was difficult to come back to a Tuesday/Thursday class schedule.

15 It was agreed upon without a salary change. Martha and Flora were also advised to wait before they attended their first faculty meeting.

16 Much like the restaurant, Duck Fat, that makes fries in Portland, ME.

17 While this may seem silly in our age, very few homes had running water and even the barest of conveniences.

18 In reality, Martha could never have been as she was portrayed in the book, The irresistible Henry House.

19 This Rockefeller Foundation funded many efforts and institutions, such as Tuskegee Institute programs. One reason the Smith-Lever Act was proposed was the feeling that Extension programs should not have to rely on these funds.

20 This was an award that was rarely given; it is similar to the U.S. Congressional Medal of Honor.

21 Mrs. Hughes also took her daughter, Elizabeth, to Banting and Best in Toronto to receive one of the first doses of insulin in the world.

22 She established a school of agriculture at Chamberlain Institute, for example.

23 Molly Brown is reported to have assisted in the rescue of women on a lifeboat in the Titanic disaster of 1912.


Reference Notes

The primary sources for this paper are largely from the professional correspondence of Martha Van Rensselaer to farm women and her staff, dating from January 1, 1901 to within days of her death in May 1932. Information about her love life was gleaned from three letters sent to Martha by her parents between 1886 and 1893. The quotes are from secondary sources: newspaper clippings most of which were saved and archived without the benefit of the publication's title, the page number, or the date. Both primary and secondary sources were obtained from New York State College of Home Economics Records (1875-1970), Collection No. 23-2-749. Additional letters were obtained from the Library of Congress, the Franklin D. Roosevelt and Hoover presidential libraries, Elmira College Library (Elmira, NY) and the Randolph Free Library in Randolph, NY, Martha's hometown.

The fictional reference is Grunwald, L. (2010). The Irresistible Henry House. New York, NY: Random House. (Also see Makela, C. J. (2011). Infants in the Home Management House. Journal of Family & Consumer Sciences, 103(2), 22-23.)

NoterAAFCS awards grant funding for a variety of family and consumer sciences research and professional development projects. Grant winners are recognized each year during the AAFCS Annual Conference. To learn more about the AAFCS Centennial Scholarship Research Grant, and other grants, visit and click on the Recognition tab.

[Author Affiliation]

Jan Scholl

AAFCS Centennial Scholar 2010-2011

[Author Affiliation]

Jan Scholl, PhD, CFCS ( is Associate Professor of Agriculture and Extension Education at Penn State University, University Park, PA.

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