The Dinner Table
A Peek into Daily Life on Vassar Street
Matthew Vassar and Catharine Valentine Vassar at Home
Searching down a fascinating article written by W.S. Cooper, son of Dr. John Cooper, Matthew Vassar’s doctor, published in installments in the Poughkeepsie Courier between October 15, 1915 and the end of the year, the reader gains one of the few views that have been recorded of the domestic life of the Vassars at their house opposite the Vassar Street Brewery. It is a retrospective glimpse into another age.
Cooper was five years old when he had supper one night without his parents at Mr. Vassar’s table in his city dwelling. He was apparently an accustomed unaccompanied guest of the childless Vassars, visiting with Mrs. Vassar as she puttered in her garden or sat in her hammock on the piazza. Fifty-six years later in searching his memories and writing up his Courier account, the domestic scene that particular day was stilll in his mind’s eye. He was called to the table in the dining room. There , already seated, were Mr. Vassar and “a lady who presided over his household ,“ Miss Amanda Germond. Cooper recalls: next that having sat down alone at the side of the table, he was “excused from eating oysters.” But then “he didn’t eat the soup when served” either, at which point Vassar said to him: “Willie, do you not like soup any better than raw oysters?” “ I replied, I liked it very much. Willie then added to Vassar, however, that he was “waiting for Aunt Katie (Mrs. Vassar) to come to the table.” Mr. Vassar said Aunt Katie was sick, whereupon Willie responded that he had seen her on the piazza a while before supper and “sat in her lap,’ realizing as he spoke that “he had put his foot in his mouth.” Miss Germond helped the situation by moving next to him from her seat “vis-a-vis“ Vassar,and they ate their food side by side.
Cooper had observed in the previous installment (Dec.12, p.17) that Matthew Vassar’s city residence had developed over time into a “sort of social center.” Vassar had “more or less dinner parties every week” with guests “not less than the Graces, nor more than the Muses.” And in addition , “first is the best size.” There were usually 3 or 4 guests. The men were prominent in various walks of life. Milo P. Jewett was there, on at least one occasion ,making “outstanding anti-slavery comments,” –comments which caused the “South “ to be “against the college because of Jewett’s position ( as educator and college president.) Miss Germond was present to be Vassar ’s “vis-à-vis at the table” — “a maiden lady of middle age, a well-educated and cultivated woman”, “accordingly chosen.” Cooper describes Vassar in retrospect as “under average height, square shouldered”, and of “a stocky build.” “He did not have a “bay window.” He carried “a cane for ornament.” Vassar, Cooper reminisced, had “great strength,” “dark brown hair,” “blue eyes,” “a Roman nose,” “”a firm mouth,” and “a square chin.” Further describing Catharine Vassar, Cooper said she was “Aunt Katie to everyone” ,”a good old soul, kind-hearted, peace loving, well-intentioned woman who kept to herself, and as her husband’s condition prospered and he rose in business and social scale, she remained as first in the same identical spot, with no altered angle of view as to matters and things, no change of tastes, and would have preferred no change “ of environment . “If the Uplift of Woman and a Higher Education for her Sex had individualized itself and hit Aunt Katie a blow in the face,” Cooper observed, ” she would not have felt or given recognition.” She was “ a good wife, model housekeeper of the old-fashioned type.” When first married, “she made for that boy [MV] not yet of age “ a bright , cheery home, kept neat as wax, and served him with appetizingly cooked and nourished meals.”