Blog post by Amanda Dubin (’18)
Eleanor Roosevelt was born into a socialite family in New York City on October 11, 1884. By 1905, Eleanor married her father’s fifth cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR served as the 44th Governor of New York from 1929 to 1932 and later went on to serve as the 32nd President of the United States from 1933 to 1945. Eleanor Roosevelt was the longest serving First Lady of the United States from March 1933 to April 1945. Following the onset of her husband’s paralytic illness, Eleanor began to stand in for her husband by making public appearances on his behalf. Eleanor dramatically changed the role of first lady through her political activism and outspokenness.
Eleanor Roosevelt’s interest in social reform for women led her to play an integral role in the development of the College of Home Economics, now the College of Human Ecology, here at Cornell University. Her fame and influence resulted in greater financial support for the college and increased the college’s publicity. Through a shared passion for social issues and involvement with the League of Women Voters, Eleanor became very close friends with Martha Van Rensselaer and Flora Rose, the co-founders of the College of Home Economics. Eleanor served on the Home Economics Council of Presidents, which lobbied for the College of Home Economics to become a state school. Thanks to Eleanor Roosevelt’s support and influence, the New York State legislature passed a bill in 1925 making Cornell’s School of Home Economics a New York State College.
The rapid growth of the college called for new facilities that could accommodate its popularity. When the state did not allocate the sufficient funding that the school needed, Martha Van Rensselaer and Flora Rose called upon Eleanor once more for her influence and connections. In a letter written to Governor Smith in 1928 soliciting his support for sufficient monies, Eleanor wrote, “As you probably know, after much consultation, it was decided to ask for an appropriation for the preparation of plans for a classroom and laboratory building for the New York State College of Home Economics at Cornell University… I am writing to beg your backing in getting this sum of money set aside for this purpose.” Needless to say, Eleanor’s plea to Governor Smith followed by her influence on her husband as the succeeding Governor of New York was sufficient in order to receive the proper funding necessary to complete the construction of the new home economics building.
Eleanor Roosevelt’s affiliation with Cornell University did not stop there. From 1928 to 1940, Eleanor visited Cornell for the annual “Farm and Home Week” in which she always gave the keynote speech to a packed Bailey Hall. In her 1934 keynote, Eleanor said “I feel I have a right to take pride and particular interest in what happens in the College of Home Economics. To me, it is the most important part of the university, for it concerns the homes of the people of this county…We need to know more about how to live to the best advantage, how to use what we have, and to know what to strive for.” During another visit in 1937, Eleanor modeled in the Farm and Home Week pageant sporting the gown that she wore to her husband’s second inaugural ball. In a letter that Eleanor wrote explaining the occasion to her daughter, Anna, she wrote, “I’ve just been on my annual pilgrimage to Cornell and besides my speech this year I took up my inauguration dresses at the request of the Student Council and modeled them in the fashion show. I’ve decided I can earn my living that way some day if necessary.” That same inaugural ball gown was later donated to the Cornell Costume and Textile Collection (#915).
Eleanor Roosevelt’s close connection to Cornell spanned over the course of 30 years and greatly benefitted the university. Her passion for social reform within the College of Home Economics demonstrated her unwavering support for young women and encouraged activism. Roosevelt left her mark on Cornell and her legacy continues to impact the College of Human Ecology today. To learn more, please visit the Home Economics Archive: Research, Tradition, History (HEARTH), What Was Home Economics? and see the primary sources for yourself in Cornell Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections.
Amanda Dubin is a research assistant at the Cornell Costume and Textile Collection and a fashion management major. She loves fashion as a means of expression and communication.