Rensselaer in the Great War

The first week of April 2017 marks the one hundredth anniversary of the United States entry into the Great War, or the First World War as it came to be called. On April 2, President Woodrow Wilson went before a joint session of Congress to request a declaration of war against Germany. Wilson cited Germany’s violation of its pledge to suspend unrestricted submarine warfare in the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean, as well as its attempts to entice Mexico into an alliance against the United States, as his reasons for declaring war. The U.S. Senate voted in support of the measure and the House concurred two days later. The United States later declared war on Germany’s ally Austria-Hungary on December 7. In May the Selective Service Act was passed requiring all males between the ages of 21 and 31 (later increased to 18 through 45) to register for potential call-up for military service (the draft).

The Great War had a significant impact on Rensselaer and American higher education in general. The value of higher education, especially technical education, to the nation’s war effort was recognized and taken seriously for the first time. At Rensselaer the pressure of voluntary enlistments (over 30 students enlisted and left the Institute by May of 1917) and the draft cut civilian student enrollment from 623 in 1917 to 190 in 1918 (mostly students who had deferments from the draft or were foreign nationals).

The student body had been well aware of the conflict prior to America’s entry. In February 1917 the Secretary of the Institute’s rifle club had wired Secretary of War, Newton D. Baker, offering to raise two companies of mounted engineers from the Rensselaer community. Baker replied that he would give the proposal consideration, if necessary. In May 1917 the Institute trustees announced their intention to establish a course in military engineering, and classes in military training began in October for about 150 students.

Also in 1917 in order to conserve its rationed coal supply the Institute began two heatless days per week and closed several buildings. The library began collecting funds to send books to servicemen in France and the student body started a “Smoke Fund” to collect money for the purchase of tobacco products also to be sent to soldiers in France. With the exception of athletic events, most campus social activities were limited or curtailed, including the annual student and alumni pageants held each spring at graduation.

In 1918 the possible value of higher education in wartime was acknowledged by a new War Department rule that college and university students who were academically in the first third of their class would be granted draft deferments. This rule was criticized by former President Theodore Roosevelt for giving special treatment to students. Rensselaer’s President Palmer Ricketts responded to Roosevelt in a letter to the editor of the Baltimore Sun arguing the case for educational deferments.

Members of the all-male faculty were also leaving for military service and in response to this in November 1918 the Institute appointed its first woman teacher, Miss Hazel Brennan, as an Assistant Instructor in Chemistry, but she left a year later. In 1919 Madame Marie De Pierpont was appointed as an instructor in French. She was named a full professor and appointed head of the language department in 1928. In 1918, possibly to compensate for the shortage of students, Institute trustee Alfred Renshaw (President Rickett’s brother-in-law), made a motion at the trustees’ December 5 meeting that women be allowed to attend the Institute. The motion lost. This was followed by a motion by trustee Henry W. Hodge, class of 1885, “Resolved, that at the present time it is not advisable to allow the admission of women students.” All votes were “yea’ except Mr. Renshaw.

In February 1918, the War Department created the Committee on Education and Special Training. The purpose of this committee was to assess the needs of the military branches. Identifying a drastic need for trained soldiers, the Student Army Training Corps (SATC) was created to provide special training for men entering the service through voluntary induction and was essentially an effort to encourage young men to receive both a college education and train for the military simultaneously.

The SATC officially began on October 1, 1918. It was located at 525 educational institutions and inducted 200,000 total students on the first day. Unlike the Selective Service Draft, enrollment in the SATC was completely voluntary. However, men who joined received the rank of private in the United States army. This was not a way of avoiding enlistment. A similar program was initiated to train students for naval service.

SATC had a short existence since the armistice ending the war was signed on November 11, 1918. However, for two months in the autumn of 1918 Rensselaer, like many other colleges, became literally a military camp, with 550 student soldiers and 120 student sailors under military authority. The students pursued a greatly condensed year-round curriculum, which consisted of about two-thirds of Rensselaer’s regular coursework, but was to be completed in two years.

President Palmer Ricketts described the program in a September 1918 letter to Rensselaer’s alumni. Both the army and navy units were demobilized after about 80 days in December 1918. Two hundred of the students immediately left the Institute and those remaining returned to their four-year curriculums.

At least 838 Institute students and alumni were on active military service during the Great War. Of these, 426 were graduates, 186 were former students who left before receiving their degrees, and 226 were students who left the Institute to enter the service. The Polytechnic estimated that thirty-nine percent of Rensselaer students and alumni served on active duty.

Twenty-nine Rensselaer alumni and students died in service during the Great War. Eleven were killed in action, thirteen died of pneumonia, and five died in aircraft or vehicle accidents. The names of twenty-eight were inscribed on a bronze memorial plaque now located on the Approach. The name of Lieutenant Ransom S. Pattison, ’08, who left before graduation and was killed in France, is not included on the plaque. (The thirteen who died from pneumonia were likely victims of the devastating 1918-1920 flu pandemic which also killed 14 Institute students during the same period.)

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Mystery publications

We haven’t blogged about mystery images in a while, but since they’re always fun I’d like to introduce a twist on that theme. Today I want to share a couple of “mystery publications” with our readers: KITE and Student Buyer’s Guide (SBG).  I found several issues of each while organizing some old campus publications that were donated to RPI.  Now I want to know more about them!

Student Buyer's Guide masthead, October 28, 1971

Both publications date from the 1970s and feature information of interest to students, particularly SBG.  It was published weekly during the school year in Latham, New York, which is centrally located between Troy, Albany, and Schenectady.  Its contents were geared toward local college-aged people, including information about concerts, exhibits, lectures, sports, movies, mixers, etc.  It also published lists of local services and venues, including coffee houses, museums, and draft counseling centers.  Students could place ads or peruse them, fill out a crossword puzzle, and even compete in a weekly “Guess the Location” photo contest.

According to editor Mike Jacobson, the Guide existed to serve student needs (v. 1, no. 1, September 23, 1971).  However, by the fifth issue (October 21, 1971) publisher David A. Cavanaugh wrote a piece defending SBG against complaints of competition from college newspapers in the capital district.  Apparently a battle for advertising dollars was brewing, but since none of the later issues contain editorials it isn’t clear what happened.

KITE masthead, February 4, 1972

The other paper, KITE, billed itself as “Art and Entertainment in the Northeast.”  KITE Publications, a subsidiary of General Audio Corporation in Schenectady, New York, printed an extensive arts and music calendar, articles on cultural events and the media, and of course local ads.  While it featured events at SUNYA (University at Albany), RPI, Siena, Union, and other local colleges, it appealed to non-collegiate readers as well.

Interestingly, SBG had a couple of people affiliated with Rensselaer on their staff (see the October 28, 1971 clipping).  What isn’t clear is what became of these publications.  Our issues date from Fall 1971 to Spring 1972.  U. Albany’s M.E. Grenander Department of Special Collections & Archives has miscellaneous copies of Kite through 1980.  If you know anything about either of these mystery publications I’d love to hear from you!

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Continuing Up the Hill: William Weightman Walker Laboratory

The first two buildings erected on the Warren estate property, purchased by the Institute after the 1904 fire which destroyed the Main Building, were the Carnegie Building (described in our last Continuing Up the Hill post) and Walker Laboratory. These two buildings mark the beginning of Rensselaer’s red brick-green roof campus.

The Institute’s growing student body (up from 175 students in 1899 to 426 in 1905) put an increasing strain on the facilities in Winslow Laboratory and in 1905 it was decided to build a new state-of-the-art facility. The Walker Laboratory was constructed at the same time as the Carnegie Building and was finished at the end of 1906 for a cost of $110,000. J.J. Albright, (Class of 1868), contributed $50,000 for the new laboratory. The building was designed by the Lawlor (Class of 1888) & Hesse architectural firm. The building’s 22 rooms included five large laboratories for various specialties. In 1913 changes were made to enlarge the laboratory spaces. Then in 1917 the increasing number of chemical engineering students made it evident that yet more laboratory space was required and the building’s size was doubled by an addition on its east side in 1921.

Shortly after the building was completed in 1906 it was named the William Weightman Walker Laboratory in memory of Dr. William Weightman Walker (Class of 1886), in gratitude to Mrs. R.J. Walker, Dr. Walker’s mother, who was a major benefactor to Rensselaer after the Main Building fire.

A two year renovation of Walker Laboratory was completed in 1996 to incorporate 21st century innovations in the teaching of chemistry, including state-of-the-art wet labs and studio classrooms. At present the building is used for interactive learning in chemistry and related fields. It has housed the undergraduate chemistry program since it opened in 1906.

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Have a Very Poly Holiday

The end of the Fall semester is always associated with the holiday break. As for faculty and staff, we go our separate ways for awhile, and head off to enjoy a break with friends, family, and loved ones. As for … Continue reading

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Baking Powder Revealed

Rumford Chemical Works Recipebook cover, 1906October is National Cookie Month as well as American Archives Month, therefore baking powder is the perfect topic for a post. While Library and Archives staff came up with their favorite recipes to share with the Rensselaer Community, I recalled an important collection in the Archives regarding Rumford Chemical Works, thus making the unique possibility of uniting cookies and archives a reality.

I, personally, have always taken baking powder for granted. Why not? The first cake I ever baked came out of a Pillsbury box. “From scratch” wasn’t in my milieu at the age of 10 when I wanted to try my hand at baking. I didn’t really get a good sense of baking ingredients until much later when my girlfriends and I would stay up late on the weekends and bake Nestle’s Toll House Cookies! Even then, ingredients were taken for granted, and I certainly didn’t contemplate baking powder. Until now.

Horsford's Rumford Yeast PowderRumford Chemical Works opened in 1854 in Seekonk (now East Providence), R.I. by the able partnership between Eben Norton Horsford (RPI Class of 1838), the civil engineer turned chemist and George Wilson, a school teacher with a penchant for business. The main product to be manufactured was Horsford’s “Rumford Yeast Powder.”  This new yeast powder reached its ultimate form in 1859 with Horsford’s new and improved baking powder which consisted of calcium phosphate. To be sure, Horsford did not invent baking powder – he revolutionized it! Horsford’s “Rumford Baking Powder” changed the look and taste of baked goods.

Rumford, wholesome pure foodThis Thing Called Baking Powder: There were three kinds of baking powder. They all had one purpose, to leaven batter or dough. All three had cornstarch and bicarbonate of soda. One had alum, another had cream of tartar (both left an aftertaste and had a laxative effect). Horsford’s calcium phosphate though, was tasteless and made the end product fluffy. Plus, Horsford’s baking powder solved the supply problem of cream of tartar which came from Europe where price fluctuations depended on the grape harvest.

Rumford Chemical Works "Typical Radio Talk" 1931Cookies in the Archives: The majority of the Rumford Chemical Works collection is patents and correspondence, but I went straight for the scrapbooks, intrigued with the diligent marketing campaign that spans 75 years of the company’s history. I was especially looking for their contribution to promoting the cookie. It appears that their marketing campaign was certainly meant to hook every single grocer and consumer (man, woman, and child). Imagine my excitement  when I came across the Rumford Company nationwide radio talk show advertisement. This flyer lists every radio station throughout the country offering the topic entitled “When Cookies Go to School.” The show was scheduled for October 9, 1931 and aired in Albany, NY on WOKO.

The radio show focused on “The Standard Cookie Recipe” (aka the “Rumford Cookie”), which was their basic recipe and all other cookie recipes were variations on this. No surprise really, more emphasis was placed on baked goods that would rise to be fluffy and light like cakes, muffins and biscuits. The cookie can sort of fend for itself since a lot of cookie recipes don’t require baking powder.

The Rumford Cookie, circa 1936The Rumford company distributed countless recipes they used to promote their baking powder. From peanut brittle to meatloaf to pudding, everything, according to the company required baking powder. They didn’t get too creative with their cookie recipes though. In order to sell baking powder to promote the cookie, their ad’s were targeted for the children.  The reverse of the cookie recipes above states “If mother does not have any [Rumford Baking Powder] in the house, ask her to get you some. She will be delighted with the fine Cookies you can make with this powder.”

Nevertheless, we must recognize Eben Norton Horsford for his diligence back in the 1850’s. He even left his position as Professor of Chemistry at Harvard University in order to dedicate his time to “this thing called baking powder.”

Thanks Eben, I am no longer taking baking powder for granted!

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