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Vassar Encyclopedia

An online work in progress under the direction of Vassar’s College Historian

More Than a Brewer

“More Than a Brewer,” by Vassar’s first official historian, Elizabeth Adams Daniels ’41, was originally written and published as part of the college’s celebration, in 1992, of the 200th birthday of its Founder, Matthew Vassar. Very slightly revised, the text presented here is that of the essay’s second publication, in 2011, at the time of Vassar’s sesquicentennial. 

The year 1992 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of a remarkable self-made man, Matthew Vassar, who at age sixty-nine, with no previous experience as an educator, endowed and founded a private college for women. It was the most unexpected and controversial accomplishment of a feisty Poughkeepsie business and civic leader’s career. In 1861, public education was not mandatory in the United States. There were very few high schools for either sex, and almost no real colleges for women. Yet that year Vassar, with no more formal education behind him than a meager two or three years of grammar school, out of the intellectual blue founded Vassar Female College, where women might experience the same serious educational challenge as their brothers who went to Yale, Harvard, or Brown. Once he had decided to use much of his large, self-made fortune to achieve this end, he worked without stopping. His contributions to the education of American women constitute a unique achievement with national and international implications.

Vassar was a complex man who until late in life had many civic, cultural, and economic irons in the fire, but the education of women was not one of them. “Progress is my motto,” he wrote in a speech prepared for his college trustees shortly before he died, and that phrase is an indication of the open attitudes and plainspeaking that characterized his activities on many fronts. He was a practical man who had a compulsion to create something of lasting value for the human race that would endure after his death. He struggled for a few years to decide what that something should be, weighing one possibility against another and listening to the conflicting advice of the many acquaintances and friends who were eager to help him spend his money.

Matthew Vassar emigrated from England in 1796 at the age of four with his parents, Ann and James Vassar, his four siblings, and some relatives. His family had lived near Norwich in East Anglia, England, where he was born on April 29th, 1792. Like other immigrants in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Vassar’s parents came to America with the idea of striking out anew. “They 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 civil and religious freedom than from any pecuniary consideration,” wrote Matthew Vassar in an unpublished manuscript. In England the Vassars were members of the independent church, and they earned their modest livelihood in farming, brewing ale, and brickmaking.

Not too many months after they arrived in the United States, the family group put down stakes in Dutchess County, on Wappinger’s Creek, a few miles from the Hudson River. Not until Matthew’s uncle, Thomas Vassar, returned to Norfolk a year later to bring back some English barley, however, was the family able to begin its modest brewing enterprise. In 1801 James Vassar sold his farm and settled in the center of Poughkeepsie to brew ale.

The Vassars’ first home in Poughkeepsie, drawn by Benson Lossing
The Vassars’ first home in Poughkeepsie, drawn by Benson Lossing

By 1804, young Matthew, by his own account in his short autobiography, had had typhus fever three times and had been more than once at the verge of death. His family had moved from one place to another in Poughkeepsie three times that he could remember, and he had gone to “Night School” to one Gabriel Ellison, a schoolmaster with a temper, who on one occasion disciplined him by striking him on the head with a ruler, “flooring” him. At that, Matthew Vassar got up, “sent an Ink Stand at [the schoolmaster’s] Yellow Breeches,” and was dismissed. His father dealt with him harshly, his mother “interceded,” and “to sum it all up,” he received almost no formal education thereafter.

Vassar couldn’t remember, when writing his autobiography, whether the time of his great escape from the tyranny of his father was during the spring of 1806 or 1807. His father intended to apprentice Matthew to a tanner since he did not seem to wish to join the family brewing enterprise. Matthew found the prospect of being a tanner completely unacceptable and, aided by his mother, who accompanied him part of the way along his escape route, he ran away from home. Steamboat service on the Hudson River was organized by Robert Fulton in 1807, but Matthew Vassar went by a small boat across to a landing near Balm Town (now Balmville), north of Newburgh. There he encountered a friendly storekeeper named Butterworth, who agreed to pay him a stipend of $300 a year for assisting in the family business while Matthew lived in his employer’s house. After working diligently in this first position, he moved on to one with more responsibility and more income, with a man named Daniel Smith. In 1810, as a young man of 18 with $150 cash in his pocket, he was ready to return to Poughkeepsie. Now, having proved himself, he willingly agreed to join his father and his older brother, John Guy, in the brewery business.

In 1811 the Vassar brewery, then located on Vassar Street, was destroyed by a fire visible up and down the river. The day after the fire, John Guy went down into a brewery vat to see what the situation was and what beer remained, and he suffocated from the fumes of carbonic acid. Matthew Vassar’s father, James, was ruined financially and greatly saddened at the loss of his oldest son. He never fully recovered from these tragic occurrences. Matthew thereafter considered it his responsibility to undertake the guardianship of his brother’s two sons, Matthew, Jr., and John Guy, Jr., although he did not officially adopt them. Now Matthew started brewing independently in a part of an old dye house that belonged to his sister Maria’s husband, George Booth, an immigrant from Yorkshire, England who was the first manufacturer of woolen cloth in Dutchess County. Vassar’s brewery, partly subsidized by Booth, was advertised as M. Vassar & Co.

Word came in the spring of 1812 that an English warship was cruising off the Staten Island Narrows and that an attack on New York was imminent. Recruiting offices enlisted volunteers, and at this point, young Matthew joined up as a sergeant in the local fusilier’s company. He was serving as aide-de-camp to General John Brush when orders came from New York Governor Tompkins to march forthwith to Staten Island. Presumably Vassar was involved only in the preliminaries of this episode, as the fall found him renting a northeast basement room in the county courthouse, under the sheriff’s office, and opening an oyster saloon and restaurant. (Oysters were all the rage in Poughkeepsie at this time.) And so he peddled beer by day and ran the oyster saloon at night. He also began diversifying his investments and bought a patent-right for machinery for shearing cloth from Peter Cooper (later founder of Cooper Union) for $300 in 1812. 

In 1813 Matthew Vassar, 21 years old, attempted to vote for the first time in the fall election. His vote was challenged, however, because he was an alien. He took advantage of this decision to escape the draft and six months of camp life. He was thus afforded the opportunity to stay at home and enlarge the business of his brewery, still called M. Vassar & Co., but now extended into a partnership with Thomas Purser, a prosperous, but ailing, Englishman. A new, more elaborate brewery building was then built on the Vassar Street site of the one that had burned down.

Feeling established and secure, Matthew decided to propose marriage to Catharine Valentine of Fishkill, and after they were married in 1813, they rented a small residence for $40 a year on what is now the corner of Noxon and Academy Streets, in the village of Poughkeepsie. His father, thinking $25 would have been enough to pay for rent, rebuked him for his extravagance.

Catherine Valentine Vassar
Catherine Valentine Vassar

(Our chances of ever knowing more particulars about the courtship or domestic details of the marriage were sharply reduced when Matthew Vassar, Jr., not conscious of the needs of history, sold most of his uncle’s papers to the ragman after Vassar, Sr. died, thereby increasing the value of the estate!)

Purser’s interest in the brewery was sold on June 10, 1815 to J. M. and N. Conklin, Jr. James Vassar was now trying to make a financial comeback manufacturing bricks, and when Purser left the firm, he assisted James in trying to sell them. For Matthew Vassar, this decade had its “ups and downs,” as he wrote in his autobiography. He covered the period from 1815 to 1845, in fact, in one sentence, dismissing it as “filled up with the ordinary buisness [sic] relations with its various phases.” In his business correspondence, however, the story of the prosperous rise of a self-made man is quite clearly defined, and we glimpse bits and pieces of daily life in those times.

At age 27 in 1819, for example, Matthew Vassar was elected trustee of the village of Poughkeepsie, which around that time had a population of 5000. He broke his leg in 1821 in New York City and was laid up at home for six months. On top of that, he had two attacks of typhoid fever between 1815 and 1820. No wonder he spent the winter of 1822 in New Orleans, where presumably he had business interests and had begun the national expansion of his brewery. Upon his return, he was laid up again for the whole of 1823 with a cold. Yet that same year, on February 3, he was well enough to be made a functioning member of Fire Company #3 of Poughkeepsie. 

We know from newspapers that in 1824 the Dutchess County Colonization Society was formed for “colonizing the free people of colour with their consent and choice,” and that Matthew Vassar was designated as the recording secretary. The papers also described the events of the holiday in August 1824 when General Lafayette, visiting the United States for a year, sailed up to Albany from New York City on the James Kent and stopped at Poughkeepsie for a breakfast visit. He was driven around the village in a barouche and ate at the Poughkeepsie Hotel in the company of the local elite, of whom Matthew Vassar was by then one.

The Conklin/Vassar brewery partnership was dissolved in 1829, and in 1832 Matthew entered into a new partnership with his nephews, Matthew and John Guy, continuing M. Vassar & Co. Vassar drew up a will in 1831, apparently contemplating the possibility of a trip to England, which did not, however, materialize.

During the next five years business opportunities mushroomed for Vassar and others, only to be followed by a time of economic depression, which Vassar mentioned in his journal for 1837, noting that he was weathering it. Among the growing enterprises with which he was identified were the incorporation of the Poughkeepsie Savings Bank in 1831, in which he took a prominent lead, and the formation of the Poughkeepsie Whaling Company in 1832, of which he was a subscriber/shareholder and director. 

The rising entrepreneur, around 1840
The rising entrepreneur, around 1840

The Vassar Brewery built a new brick building down on the riverfront above Main Street dock in 1836. The company now had two branches in Poughkeepsie, one in New York City, and one in Lansingburg, New York, near Albany. The new waterfront building was something of a phenomenon, three and four stories high, 200 feet by 50 feet, capable of producing 50,000 barrels per annum. In February 1837 Vassar’s ale, made in the English tradition with hops and barley, was selling from $5.50 to $6.00 a barrel. In 1837, also, Matthew Vassar took over the bankrupt business of Charles Vassar, his brother, which made bricks known as “Poughkeepsie Stretchers” at a brickyard, on what later came to be known as Brickyard Hill at the east end of Poughkeepsie.>/p> The Famers and Manufacturers National Bank was chartered in 1834, and Matthew Vassar, who later became its president, joined its board. In 1835 he was elected president of the village of Poughkeepsie on the “Improvement” ticket. (Evidently, Vassar had become an American citizen, or was at least no longer considered an alien.) The “Improvement” Party vitalized public resources in the village, reorganizing streets, mapping districts, and building public utilities.

The most salutary event of the ‘40s for Vassar’s future was the return to Poughkeepsie from Virginia of Lydia Booth, his step-niece, a successful schoolteacher and proprietor of a girls’ seminary there. Having taught for 10 years or so in Tappahannock and Fredericksburg, Virginia, Booth was called back to Poughkeepsie in the mid-‘40s to succeed a Mrs. Congdon, who had run a popular ladies’ seminary in the village. First occupying premises at Union Square, Booth then moved to a building owned by Matthew Vassar on Garden Street, and called her school the “Cottage Hill Seminary.” In his autobiography, Vassar credited his niece with first turning his mind towards “the enlarged education of women.”

At this time the Baptist society built a church on Lafayette Place at a cost of $20,000; one half the sum was donated by Matthew Vassar, who also gave the land. Vassar was very influential in the affairs of the Poughkeepsie Baptists, but more in the temporal aspects than religious ones.

One of the most important commitments Matthew Vassar ever took on was the development of the Hudson River Railroad beginning in 1842. It is hard to imagine what it must have been like for Poughkeepsians whose business interests depended on transportation to other areas, as Vassar’s did, to have the river lie frozen until late into the spring, as it did in 1843, when Vassar couldn’t move his supplies for making ale from New York to Poughkeepsie. The railroad was constructed late in that decade, but not until a controversy about its route had been resolved. There were two factions concerned about its placement, one which wanted a shore route, and the other, led by a Councilman Leonard, an interior route some 30 miles east of the river. 

Vassar’s Poughkeepsie brewery
Vassar’s Poughkeepsie brewery

Not until the Hudson Highlands had been surveyed was it clear that the shore route was feasible and would be some five miles shorter and about an hour quicker. The owners of river sloop enterprises were, of course, altogether opposed to the idea of modernized land transportation. Eventually, in 1847, Matthew Vassar was named president of the Hudson River Railroad. By 1849 regularly scheduled trains were traveling between New York City and Poughkeepsie, making the run in an hour and three quarters!

Vassar had amassed a small fortune by 1845, climbed to the top of the in-group in the Poughkeepsie power-structure, and made a number of enemies in the inner councils of the Baptist church, in which there was a great deal of internal feuding. He lived in a beautiful town house on property across the street from the brewery at the corner of Main and Vassar Streets. However, he apparently thought it would be a good time for a change of scene. Although Catharine, his wife, wasn’t much of a traveler, he decided to take her back to the England he had left as a small child and also to visit the continent. He engaged Cyrus Swan, a local lawyer who acted as his adviser and business agent, to go along and help him with arrangements as a kind of secretary.

The entourage of three set off for England on the Northumberland in May 1845 and stayed abroad until late fall. During this trip Vassar tried, somewhat unsuccessfully, to retrace his roots in the north of England. More important was his experience in London visiting Guy’s Hospital, founded by Thomas Guy, whom Vassar thought to be one of his ancestors. He was deeply affected. Then and there, he said, he began to dream of leaving a similar legacy to those who would follow him. When he reached Versailles in September, it was the equivalent of beginning to dream in Technicolor; he began to see the importance of leaving a physical monument to benefit mankind. He returned to the United States with a resolve to spend his fortune for such an enterprise.

Shortly after he returned, Vassar was involved in an undertaking to raise a subscription for a projected rural cemetery below the central village of Poughkeepsie, near the river. He purchased the desired acreage for $8,000 in advance of raising the money, only to find that Poughkeepsie citizens were reluctant to go through with the project at that time. (One reason for this was undoubtedly the enmity he had incurred among his fellow Baptists.) As a result, he decided to keep the property himself and develop it as a country estate. In 1850 he engaged Andrew Jackson Downing to design a villa and several other structures, as well as to create gardens, on the property. Although the villa never was built – probably because he decided to build a college in instead – Vassar did have several Downing buildings constructed, including a farm cottage, where he lived in the summer, trekking out from his Vassar Street mansion across from the brewery to seek the romantic beauty of “Springside.” He alternated between houses from 1850 to 1863, and after his wife died in that year, he lived at Springside year-round. (It is hard to imagine Vassar, accustomed to the spaciousness and grandeur of a townhouse, in such cramped quarters. His housekeeper, Amanda Germond, and his estate manager shared the house with him. Germond, acted as his hostess when he entertained college visitors at Springside.)

Vassar was engaged in several other new enterprises in the ‘50s. The Poughkeepsie Lyceum of Literature, Science, and Mechanic Arts had been incorporated in 1838. In December 1853 a local paper noted that Vassar was in the last year of his several-year presidency of the Lyceum when he addressed its members before the first course of lectures of the year. Later on in the season, Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke. It is interesting to connect this occasion with one in May 1867 when Emerson again came to Poughkeepsie and lecture – this time at Vassar College – on “The Man of the World.” 

The year 1855 was important to Poughkeepsie and to Matthew Vassar in at least three ways. The city was incorporated that year; Matthew Vassar became president of the Poughkeepsie Aqueduct and Hydraulic Company, the purpose of which was to supply Poughkeepsie with good, clean water (important to beermaking as well as to the citizenry at large). And it was a year in which a prohibition law was passed (the Prohibitory Law of 1855, Chapter 231 of the Laws of 1855). This law prohibited the sale and keeping of liquors for any purpose in New York State, “except as a medicine or for sacramental, chemical, and mechanical purposes.” Myron Clark, who was later to become the father-in-law of the Vassar trustee Frederick Ferris Thompson (1885–1899), that year defeated Horatio Seymour for governor of New York. Clark favored prohibition, and Vassar lobbied as hard as he could in Albany to defeat it. The ban was repealed in 1857, with Clark saying it had been subjected to “unscrupulous opposition.” Vassar’s business meanwhile seems to have continued uninterrupted. 

By 1860 Vassar had determined to endow a college for women as an enduring benefaction for posterity. He came at his ideas about endowing a woman’s college after a careful consideration of alternatives. There were many conflicting suggestions from advisers and his relatives, once he made known his ambitions regarding the founding of an institution which would serve as a memorial to the Vassar name. He was primarily influenced in his deliberations by two individuals, he said: his step-niece, Lydia Booth, who championed the cause of women, and a fellow Baptist, the Reverend Milo P. Jewett, an educator from the South who moved to Poughkeepsie before the Civil War. Lydia Booth died suddenly at age 51 in 1854, and her school closed. Matthew Vassar sold the property to Jewett in 1855, and Jewett reopened Booth’s school that year. Many of the ideas incorporated into the planning for the college were conceived by Jewett, who was very ambitious and who acted also as an emissary for Vassar in his quest for information about higher education.

One of the most interesting aspects of Vassar’s life is the maturing of his ideas about women’s education. Once determined to found and endow a college, he left no stone unturned to find out experiences and useful ideas of educators. An important detail of this growth is that, when asked, he joined the board of trustees of the University of Rochester, of which is friend, Martin P. Anderson, was president, and he learned a great deal from his association with Anderson. It was Jewett, however, who conducted many of Vassar’s investigations for him about women and higher education; but it was Vassar himself who laboriously arrived at his final decision and thereafter wanted to implement it properly. Vassar came to hold very strong convictions that women should be offered the same opportunity for education as men. 

A few years before he formed his board of trustees in 1861, Vassar commissioned Thomas Alexander Tefft, an American architect, to draw up plans for the building of the college. Having submitted first drafts, Tefft was in the process of refining them when he died in 1859 of the Italian fever in Florence. Soon thereafter Vassar gave the commission to James Renwick, Jr., architect of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.

On February 26, 1861, Vassar established his college, an act which was to consume his energies and enthusiasm for the rest of his life. He invited 28 men, half of them Baptist clergymen, to form a board of trustees and to ask the New York State legislature to incorporate Vassar Female College. The first meeting of the board was held at the Hotel Gregory in Poughkeepsie, and Jewett was elected president. Matthew Vassar donated the funds for the endowment of the college in a tin box. 

Matthew Vassar presented $408,000 in securities to the trustees of his new college in a tin box.
Matthew Vassar presented $408,000 in securities to the trustees of his new college in a tin box.

The gift consisted of securities totaling $408,000, as well as a deed of conveyance for a parcel of two hundred acres for the college site. Vassar said to the trustees on this occasion: “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.” 

But Vassar had picked a time of economic strain to build his college. Fort Sumter was fired upon on April 12, 1861. During the four years that Main Building was being erected, the prices of lumber and bricks fluctuated; Vassar’s investments suffered losses; and William Harloe, the builder of Main and the Observatory, two of the four original buildings, declared bankruptcy. Nevertheless, the college went up pretty much on schedule and was ready for the opening on September 26, 1865. 

In April 1862 Jewett went to Europe to study women’s education. While he was away, Vassar himself took on some of the work of answering letters of inquiry about the college and dealing with relations with the outside world. He was also actively involved in planning a landscape for the campus and working out details about the heating system. Here his business experience came into sharp focus, and he kept a daily eye on the campus as a kind of works manager ex-officio.

Between December 1862 when Jewett returned and April 1864 when he resigned as president, tensions arose between Jewett and several of the members of the board of trustees, especially Matthew Vassar, Jr., who was treasurer of the college. Vassar, Jr. had never been enthusiastic about his uncle’s decision to build a college, and he resented Jewett’s role in convincing Vassar to build a college rather than hospital. Jewett, frustrated by the decision not to open in the fall of 1864 when he thought the building would be ready, made some indiscreet criticisms of the senior Vassar in a letter to some of the trustees. His insubordination was discovered by Vassar, who asked for his resignation. Thereupon, the Reverend John Raymond, a member of the board with experience in running an educational institution for men, the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, was persuaded to become the president. It was he who really set the college in motion and helped it weather its problematic first several years. He chose most of the nine professors, except for Maria Mitchell, who had already been invited by Matthew Vassar to be professor of astronomy. He sent out a prospectus, and he presided over the admission of students and the development of the curriculum.

In January 1863 Catharine Vassar died at age 73. At that time Vassar gave up his town house and thereafter lived year-round in the farm cottage at Springside. He designed an impressive tombstone to decorate the grave of his wife and himself. It was a large marble acorn atop a column. He was reputed to have said to Vassar students who saw it (with reference to the old adage of the oak and the acorn): “You get the point.” After the death of his wife, he removed Springside from public access. Its grounds had served as a pleasure garden for about a decade or so.

Vassar purchased the art collection of the Reverend Elias Magoon for the college in 1864 as a nucleus for the collection of the Vassar College Art Gallery and also gave the college a library that he acquired from Magoon, as well as his own library. Surprisingly, although Vassar never went beyond the equivalent of about third grade and could not spell very well, he seems to have developed into a reader. Many of the contemporary and classical books that he passed on to the college show signs of his having read them.

Vassar was happy to entertain the first group of Vassar students at Springside four days after the college opened its doors to 353 young women in 1865. His nephew, John Guy, a bachelor and world traveler, conducted a tour of the grounds. Vassar, Sr. himself continued to go to the campus almost every day, and he took great pleasure in chatting with the students and enjoying their company and praise. In April 1866 the faculty voted that Matthew Vassar birthday, April 29, should “be entered on the calendar as a holiday to be annually observed by appropriate commemoration exercises and that it be known as Founder’s Day.” It was celebrated for the first time that year, although one day late.

Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, had waged a one-person campaign, since the opening of the college, to get the word “female” removed from the name of Vassar Female College. In an age just encountering Darwin’s Origin of Species, published in 1859, the indelicate word seem to her to have suggestive sexual overtones improper for a college for women. In 1867 the trustees and Vassar capitulated, and the legislature was petitioned to remove the offending word from the title. Thereafter the college was known simply as Vassar College.

Matthew Vassar died on June 23, 1868, while delivering his farewell speech to the board of trustees. He had chosen the annual meeting that year to submit his resignation as trustee, since he was satisfied that his mission was accomplished: the college was in good hands, and the future was secure. As he slumped over, he was caught by Benson Lossing, one of the trustees, but he was dead. After a respectful interval, the meeting was continued, and the rest of his speech was read.

Vassar College became the living monument that Matthew Vassar first saw in his mind’s eye and spoke about to the trustees. It held the field alone for 10 years and was subsequently joined by equally substantial sister colleges. It accommodated itself to the changing needs of women, whose lives in each generation differed from those of their forebears. During the Taylor era (1886–1914), it grew in size and stature. Subsequently, in the MacCracken years after World War I, it was transformed into a more modern institution. In the 1960’s it began to accommodate men and search for new forms. Yet on its founder’s 200th birthday in 1992 it remains the planted tree-of-life of Vassar’s imagination: “So with a college, it should possess the germ of life within itself; something that will grow. Things made by human hands are generally without life; but educational institutions should be living entities, and rise in strength and grandeur by an inherent power.”

EAD, JP, JS, CJ 2006