A century ago, one woman changed the lives of farm wives, helped establish a new academic discipline, and began a legacy at Cornell.
This year marks the centennial anniversary of Martha Van Rensselaer’s arrival into the Cornell community, and the College of Human Ecology is celebrating with its theme of “Value Our Past, Create Our Future.”
“She really built human ecology at Cornell,” said Patsy M. Brannon, dean of the human ecology college. “[Her hiring] is what really led to the development of home economics and human ecology at Cornell.” Cornell is the only Ivy League school with a human ecology school.
In 1900, Prof. Liberty Hyde Bailey, horticulture, hired Van Rensselaer to start a reading course for farm wives. Bailey sent a survey to 5,000 farm wives, trying to foster interest in the course while requesting details about the steps the women took to do their daily housework.
Two thousand replied. Van Rensselaer interpreted their responses and wrote an outreach bulletin targeting women called, “Saving Steps.”
“She was interested in making work more efficient,” Brannon said, adding that Van Rensselaer wanted to “bring new scientific knowledge to bear” and help women improve their lives. She and Flora Rose, her colleague and friend since 1907, were the first female professors at Cornell, Brannon said.
The “Cornell Reading Course for Farmers’ Wives” eventually developed into a department and, in 1925, the College of Home Economics was born. Van Rensselaer died in 1932, two years before the completion of the building that bears her name and houses the human ecology college.
The school was renamed the College of Human Ecology in 1969, when internal changes to the University, a greater emphasis on research, and national social change altered the college’s focus.
To celebrate a century of human ecology and home economics, the college is sponsoring events throughout the year. Alumni Reunion Weekend in June 2000 marked the beginning of the festivities, which will continue through June 2001.
A new class this semester aimed to “extricate meaning” from the experiences of women involved in the early study of home economics, according to Prof. Joan Jacob Brumberg, human development. She created a course called Archival Research: Exploring the History of Home Economics, where students learn by reading background material, then pore through documents and photographs in the Kroch Library archives to create an exhibit.
“I wanted to really understand the origins of the College of Human Ecology,” Brumberg said about why she formed the class. Work by the class’s 13 students will help form the exhibit, “From Domesticity to Modernity: What WAS Home Economics,” which will run from March 30 through June 9 in Kroch Library.
The students had to apply to enroll in the class.
“I wanted students with a performance record,” Brumberg said. “They’re a mix of students from many different departments in human ecology, and also from the arts college,” she said.
The purpose of the course extends beyond helping students gain experience researching.
“The larger purpose was to contribute through that exhibit to an important historical revision,” Brumberg said. “There are a lot of myths as to what home economics is about — that it’s traditionally about tablesetting. I’m looking to prove that home economics has been misinterpreted,” Brumberg explained.
Iveta Brigis ’02 said her perspective changed while taking the course.
“My opinion of home economics before I took this class was that it was [like] a class I took in seventh grade where I baked apple pie and sewed buttons on to felt,” Brigis said.
Brumberg explained its true significance.
“Home economics was a very important pathway for women into higher education,” Brumberg said. “It brought science into the American home and elevated the standard of living.”
“Since Cornell had a very famous college of human ecology it seemed important that people in this community understand what was going on there … in a modern, more nuanced sense,” Brumberg added.
The Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art will also host an exhibit from March 31 to June 17, called “Common Threads: Dress, Identity and Art in the Twentieth Century.” The exhibit will combine 50 to 60 costumes from the human ecology college costume collection with art from the museum’s collection. A dress of Martha Van Rensselaer’s and another of Mimi Eisenhower’s will be on display.
“What you will see is not only what was fashionable to wear, but what was cutting edge in the fine arts as well,” said Prof. Charlotte Jirousek, textiles and apparel, the exhibit coordinator.
A century ago, fashion and art were very different, as restrictive corsets contrasted with cubist paintings, according to Jirousek. In the 1960s, however, the art and fashion started to merge, she said.
“Couture has become an art form,” Jirousek explained.
The exhibit features fashions throughout the 20th century, most of which were donated by alumni.
“It provides a very nice way of showing the times through which the College of Human Ecology has evolved,” Jirousek said. “Clothing really reflects what’s going on in our lives.”
The exhibit complements an exhibit called “Uncommon Threads: Contemporary Artists and Clothing,” which features artists from all over the country whose subject matter is clothing. The two exhibits will be “looking at how clothing as we wear it every day relates to art,” Jirousek said.
Currently, there is a Centennial Exhibit of historical documents on display in the new addition to Mann Library. These and other activities throughout the year celebrate Van Rensselaer and the college she helped to create.
A committee from the human ecology college and the community are striving to extend the innovator’s legacy.
“We just nominated her for the Women’s Hall of Fame again,” Brannon said. This is the second time Van Rensselaer has been nominated. In 1923, she was voted one of the 12 greatest women in America by the National League of Women Voters.
Archived article by Heather Schroeder