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The Pride and Joy of Poughkeepsie: A Vassar College History

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Matthew Vassar’s rise from immigrant brewer to founder of America’s preeminent female college in Poughkeepsie is a classic Hudson Valley tale.

Matthew Vassar was an enormously successful businessman, a political force, a pioneer in women’s rights, a hobnobber with the stars and, of course, the founder — 150 years ago — of the college in Poughkeepsie that bears his name. But what he really wanted, when all was said and done, was a statue of himself. Arriving too late for him to enjoy, the statue is one of the few failures in his remarkable life.

Vassar was born April 29, 1792, in the village of East Dereham, England, the son of Ann Bennett and James Vassar, farmers and religious dissenters of the Church of England. When Matthew was four, his family left for America. “[My parents] were the first of the Family name that left their Fatherland and were induced to seek this new Western continent more for the love of civic and religious freedom than from any pecuniary consideration,” he later wrote.

vassar ladies basketball team 1896

Members of the 1896 basketball team

The family settled in Dutchess County, where acquaintances from England were living, and bought a farm on Wappingers Creek, near Manchester Bridge. Matthew’s uncle, a brewer named Thomas Vassar, also came along, “but he forgot to bring hops, so he sailed back to get them,” says Elizabeth Daniels, Ph.D., Vassar College historian and emeritus professor of English. In 1799, Thomas planted Dutchess County’s first-ever acre of barley and, in 1801, he and James began the family’s American brewing concern.

Ten years later, the brewery burned to the ground; Matthew’s older brother, John Guy Vassar, was killed by the fumes. Father James went back to farming; but Matthew, already running an oyster house in town, decided to start his own brewery. He sold beer by day and tended the restaurant at night. He also became, at age 19, the de-facto head of his family.

president franklin delano roosevelt and vassar president henry noble maccracken

Franklin Delano Roosevelt and President Henry Noble MacCracken at the 1931 Commencement (above); below, a 1950s-era student types a paper

Driven to succeed — “he was ambitious and wanted to make money,” Dr. Daniels says — Matthew Vassar went on to buy the patent rights to a successful cloth-cutting machine, invest in real estate, help incorporate Poughkeepsie Savings Bank, become president of the Hudson River Railroad, dabble in the whaling industry, and develop an aqueduct (selfishly, to bring water to his brewery, which continued to thrive). At a time when Poughkeepsie was a powerful and established metropolis, “no one was more active than he was,” according to Dr. Johnson.

He was married in 1813 to Catherine Valentine (or Valantine; both spellings appear in the record). They had no children. In the ensuing decades Vassar was elected a trustee of the village of Poughkeepsie and, later, its president. He hosted the likes of the Marquis de Lafayette and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

vassar female student

And he did all this without the benefit of formal schooling, says Colton Johnson, Ph.D., professor emeritus of English and dean emeritus at Vassar. “He went to night school briefly, but was kicked out for throwing an ink stand at the school master,” Dr. Johnson says. Two specific events, however, brought education, specifically women’s education, to consume Vassar for the rest of his life.

The college’s main building, circa 1860

 In 1837, his niece, Lydia Booth, moved her girl’s seminary from Virginia to a building owned by her uncle on Poughkeepsie’s Garden Street. In the subsequent years, Booth impressed upon Vassar the urgent need for educational opportunities for women. And eight years later, on a trip to London with his wife, Vassar spent time at Guy’s Hospital, which had been established to treat patients with incurable diseases. Vassar later wrote, “I visited… the famous ‘Guy’ Hospital, the founder of which a family relative, ‘[Thomas] Guy’… had the honor of being named after. Seeing this Institution first suggested the idea of devoting a portion of my Estate to some Charitable purpose.”

“This trip struck him forcefully,” Dr. Daniels says. And not just the charitable purpose; he was equally impressed by the statue of Thomas Guy in front of the hospital.

vassar men rugby 1979

Male students play rugby in 1979

In 1854, Lydia Booth died, and her school was purchased by Milo P. Jewett. A northerner by birth, Jewett had run a girl’s seminary in Alabama but — as Southern animosity grew ever fiercer in the years leading up to the Civil War — came back to New York. In an unpublished manuscript titled “Origin of Vassar College,” Jewett claimed he suggested the idea of a college for women to Matthew: “If you will establish a real College for girls and endow it, you will build a monument for yourself more lasting than the Pyramids; it will be the pride and joy of Po’keepsie, an honor to the state and a blessing to the world.”

In 1860, Vassar bought land two miles east of Poughkeepsie, and a year later incorporated Vassar Female College. At the first trustee’s meeting, he presented a small tin box containing securities worth $408,000 and a deed for two hundred acres for the college site and farm. “It occurred to me, that woman, having received from her Creator the same intellectual constitution as man, has the same right as man to intellectual culture and development,” Vassar told the trustees.

Vassar himself put the first shovel in the ground, on June 4, 1861, to begin construction of the Main Building (which was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1986). Though it was ready to open in 1864, Vassar wanted to wait until the end of the Civil War. “A women’s college was a rather controversial experiment,” explains Dr. Johnson. There were those who thought it would destroy American womanhood and the fabric of the American family, and that studying could lead women to infertility or insanity. “Vassar knew he needed as calm and favorable a public climate as possible,” Dr. Johnson says.

meryl streep 1969

Vassar student Meryl Streep ’71 performs the lead role in the 1969 college production of Strindberg’s Miss Julie / Photograph by Arax-Serjan Studios, Poughkeepsie

The college’s first president, Milo Jewett, wanted to open immediately, and this led to a falling out with Vassar. Later that year, Jewett resigned. (Rev. John H. Raymond, a charter trustee, succeeded him as president — with a salary of $4,000 per year.) On September 26, 1865, Vassar Female College welcomed its first 353 students — all between the ages of 15 and 24, and some from as far away as California. The annual fee for tuition and residence was $350.

Although the upstate Elmira Female College had been chartered about 10 years earlier as the Auburn Female University, “a woman’s college was a sensation around the country. Tongues were wagging about what was happening,” Dr. Johnson says. “This was a life-changing experience for the students, but they had such uneven preparations that it wasn’t known who was a freshman and who was a sophomore until the next year.”

vassar commencement

Members of the Class of 2010 spell out “sesquicentennial” at their graduation ceremony

In 1866, “Female” was removed from the college’s name, and tuition — already beginning its persistent climb — was hiked to $400. And in 1867, the first four graduates of Vassar College matriculated with “Certificates of Completion” (at the time, the board was still wrangling with the suitability of awarding “bachelor’s” degrees to women).

Matthew Vassar died a year later, on June 23, 1868, while addressing the board of trustees; in mid-sentence, his tone grew weak, he dropped the papers he was holding, his head fell back, and he passed away in the chair in which he was sitting. He never got his statue, even though he posed for models and offered to loan local sculptors $25,000 — at seven percent interest — to build one. (There were no takers.) His likeness didn’t take its rightful place on campus until a few years ago.

Never mind that, though. Time will tell if his college is, as Jewett stated, “more lasting than the Pyramids,” but it is certainly “the pride and joy of Po’keepsie, an honor to the state and a blessing to the world.”

current vassar college students

Students gather around Matthew Vassar’s sculpture

Timeline:

1792: Matthew Vassar is born in England

1796: His family emigrates to the United States and settles in Dutchess County

1845: Vassar visits Guy’s Hospital in London, founded by an ancestor, and is impressed with the importance and permanence of properly endowed public philanthropy.
Vassar’s niece, Lydia Booth, the proprietor of the Cottage Hill Seminary in Poughkeepsie, suggests her uncle consider enabling “enlarged education for women”

1855: Milo P. Jewett tells Vassar that, in founding a woman’s college, “you will build a monument to yourself more lasting than the Pyramids”

1861: Vassar Female College is chartered by the New York State Legislature.
Vassar donates $408,000 in securities and 200 acres of land.
Vassar turns the first spadeful of soil for Main Building, which was designed by James Renwick, Jr., architect of the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City

1865: Vassar Female College opens, admitting 353 students — including a Civil War widow — between the ages of 15 and 24

1867: The word “Female” is removed from both the institution’s name and the front of the Main Building.
The college colors, rose and grey, are chosen, symbolizing the rose of sunrise breaking through the gray of womens’ previous intellectual life.
The first four graduates of Vassar matriculate

1868: Matthew Vassar dies while delivering his farewell address to the board of trustees

1915: In the college’s 50th anniversary year, President Henry Noble MacCracken proposes to the presidents of Mount Holyoke, Smith, and Wellesley a “four college conference,” leading eventually to the Seven College Conference (known as the “Seven Sisters”)

1968: Vassar College goes coed: Trustees approve the admittance of male students beginning in 1970

1974: First coed class graduates

1999: Vassar is named “College of the Year” by Time magazine and the Princeton Review

2006: Matthew Vassar’s statue is unveiled

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