Matthew Vassar, founder of Vassar College, was a shrewd businessman from a humble background. He was born to English farmers Ann Bennett and James Vassar on April 29, 1792, in East Dereham, England (Hudson Valley, “The Pride and Joy of Po’keepsie: A Vassar College History,” 01.14.2011). The Vassar family came to America only a few short years after Matthew was born, and few predicted the legacy that he would leave behind.
Once the Vassar clan arrived in America, they chose to settle in Dutchess County, NY, close to the familiar faces of friends from England. Matthew Vassar is known by the campus community as a brewer, and he was not the first of his family to hold that occupation: Thomas Vassar, Matthew’s uncle, was a brewer as well. Thomas sailed with the rest of the Vassar family, but forgot the hops and was forced to return to England. James and Thomas Vassar planted the first acre of barley Dutchess County had ever seen in 1799. Shortly thereafter, in 1801, they created a brewing company.
After a fire burned down the family’s brewery and Matthew’s brother was killed by smoke inhalation, his father decided to return to farming. Matthew, however, had the desire to start his own brewery, and he was determined and driven in his efforts to achieve this goal.
Matthew was not only interested in building his brewing business. Former Vassar College Historian and Professor Emerita of English Elizabeth Daniels wrote that he was ambitious and wanted to make money. He expanded his work into many different industries including the Poughkeepsie Savings Bank, real estate investing, patent purchasing and building an aqueduct that brought sufficient amounts of water. Poughkeepsie at this time was a thriving metropolis, but according to Professor Daniels, “No one was more active than he was,” (Hudson Valley).
While Vassar’s business endeavors were thriving, he married his wife, Catherine, in 1813. They did not have any children, but they were close to their niece Lydia Booth, who emphasized the need for women’s education to her aunt and uncle. Years later, after visiting the hospital his late brother had founded, Vassar decided that he too wished to be remembered fondly after his passing. At that moment, he decided to create Vassar College, and in 1860 he purchased land just east of Poughkeepsie, where the college would offer educational opportunities to only women for over 100 years. However, in the fall of 1969, the College opened its doors for the first time to a co-ed class. Originally, Vassar College’s campus was only 200 acres. At the first Board of Trustees meeting, Vassar presented attendees with a deed for land and $408,000. He explained to the Board how crucial educational opportunities were not only for men, but also for women. Addressing the Board, he stated, “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” (Hudson Valley).
The construction of Main Building began in the summer of 1861. The building was designed by James Renwick Jr., most famously known for his role as the architect of the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., as well as that of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. Main was originally a building for administrative use, classes, dining and living—in fact, all aspects of college life took place in Main. On Sept. 26, 1865, Vassar College opened its doors to its first class of women. 353 students ranging in ages from 15 to 24 set foot on campus to begin their college education. Matthew Vassar had succeeded in becoming a pioneer in women’s education, and the College offered women an education of equal quality to that of men at comparable colleges and universities (Vassar Info, “A History of Vassar College”).
Matthew Vassar’s legacy remains ever-present on campus and in college life, beyond just his last name. His statue, which he unfortunately was never able to see, sits outside Main Building. In 1864, Matthew purchased the Hudson River School painting collection from Dr. Elias Lyman Magoon, one of the first trustees of Vassar College, to inaugurate the College’s art collection (The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, “Hudson River School”). The collection can be viewed today in the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center.
As a prestigious and century-old institution, Vassar College is inherently connected to the Hudson Valley and surrounding area. Vassar had a vision of what women’s education should look like. At the risk of outcry, he pushed to change the educational opportunities accessible to women.
And yes, the old saying is true: “We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for beer!”
[This article is informed by the following sources:
Hudson Valley, “The Pride and Joy of Po’keepsie: A Vassar College History,” 01.14.2011
Vassar Info, “A History of Vassar College”
The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, “Hudson River School.”]