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. …

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