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Van Rensselaer, Martha (1864–1932)

Van Rensselaer, Martha (1864–1932)

American home economist and educator. Born on June 21, 1864, in Randolph, New York; died of cancer on May 26, 1932, in New York City; daughter ofHenry Killian Van Rensselaer (a storekeeper and insurance agent) and Arvilla A. (Owen) Van Rensselaer (a schoolteacher and boardinghouse manager); educated at Chamberlain Institute; Cornell University, A.B., 1909.

Martha Van Rensselaer was born in 1864 in Randolph, New York, one of five children in a family of Dutch and Welsh ancestry. Her father was active in the Methodist Church and in politics, and her mother, a former schoolteacher who ran a boardinghouse, was also active in church and community affairs, including the women's suffrage movement. Although her parents were not wealthy, they were educated, and Van Rensselaer considered her home a source of gentility in the rural area in which they lived. From her parents, particularly her mother, Van Rensselaer learned that women possessed tremendous power in the home, but that they needed to be schooled to reach their full potential. Her education began at the coeducational Chamberlain Institute, a Methodist school where her father was a trustee. She graduated in 1884 and taught there as well as at other private schools for the next ten years.

Van Rensselaer also lectured at teachers' institutes, was active in women's clubs, and attended the Chautauqua Summer School, where she was secretary from 1894 to 1903 for the New York State Department of Public Instruction. In 1893, she switched from teaching to administration. She was nominated as one of two school commissioners of Cattaraugus County by a convention of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, and won the election. Although she was elected again in 1896, she failed in her bid for a third term in 1899.

As commissioner, she had assisted the efforts of the agricultural extension program at Cornell University, including Anna Botsford Comstock 's work using nature study to promote farming. When she realized from her visits to local farms that these educational efforts were failing to reach farm wives, Van Rensselaer accepted the invitation of Liberty Hyde Bailey, a professor of horticulture at Cornell, to organize an extension program for farmers' wives. This project involved her for the remainder of her life, and eventually evolved into the New York State College of Home Economics at Cornell University.

In January 1901, she published the first bulletin of the "Farmers' Wives' Reading Course." Saving Steps was originally distributed to 5,000 women who had signed up for the course; however, within a few years there were 20,000 women enrolled and several local study groups had formed. The bulletins, which were published five times a year, addressed popular topics such as sanitation, interior decorating, nutrition, reading, dressmaking, and child care. Known as "Miss Van," Van Rensselaer also ran a boardinghouse in Ithaca for students and instructors.

Cornell University initiated resident, accredited home economics courses in 1903, when Bailey became dean of the College of Agriculture. He suggested to Van Rensselaer that she offer a class in homemaking, and in 1906 she began a more extensive course. The following year, a department of home economics was formed within the College of Agriculture, and Van Rensselaer was appointed co-chair with Flora Rose , a graduate of Kansas State Agricultural College.

In 1909, Van Rensselaer received her A.B. degree from Cornell, and in 1911 she and Rose became professors. Rose was in charge of resident teaching and research, while Van Rensselaer was involved with administration and extension work. By 1917, the program had expanded to include a four-year degree course in home economics, monthly bulletins, 200 Cornell Study Clubs, extension courses, work in the public schools, and Cornell's annual Home and Farm Week. In 1919, the department became a school within the College of Agriculture, and in 1925 it became the New York State College of Home Economics, with Van Rensselaer and Rose as co-directors. In 1929–30, the state allocated $1 million for the creation of a new home economics building, the Martha Van Rensselaer Hall at Cornell.

From 1914 to 1916, Van Rensselaer served as president of the American Home Economics Association, and also worked as homemaking editor for the journal Delineator from 1920 to 1926. During World War I, she directed the Home Conservation Division of the U.S. Food Administration, and in 1923 she served in Belgium with the American Relief Commission. She was also active in other home economics and health causes, including the White House Conference on Child Health and Protection, which met in 1930. Van Renssalaer died of cancer at St. Luke's Hospital in New York City in 1932, at age 68. She was buried in the Randolph Cemetery in New York.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

Kelly Winters , freelance writer

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