Over the past ten years or so, many big corporations that make money off the despoliation of the natural environment have been scrambling to “green up” their public images. Back in the 19th century, entrepreneurs who manufactured and sold alcoholic beverages faced a similar public relations quandary – especially in the decades following the Civil War, when the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the Salvation Army, the Anti-Saloon League and similar organizations began to exercise considerable social clout.
To be fair, the temperance movement wasn’t merely a manifestation of Puritanical zeal to suppress any behavior that smacked of having a good time. Though often caricatured in post-Prohibition retrospect as a bunch of fundamentalist killjoys, many of its most ardent supporters were also architects of the women’s suffrage movement: women who had seen firsthand the undeniable connection between alcoholism and domestic violence.
So what’s a successful brewer to do in such times, if he wants to be seen as an upstanding member of his community, a promoter of social welfare and a patron of humankind’s more elevated faculties? Well, you could start by using some of your fortune to found a women’s college, as Matthew Vassar did in 1861. But that wasn’t enough, apparently. His nephews, John Guy Vassar and Matthew Vassar, Jr., wanted to jump on the Victorian Era bandwagon of forming “educational societies” where people interested in intellectual self-improvement could attend lectures about civics, science, agronomy, language, literature and art.
Three such societies that had formed in Poughkeepsie during the 1870s were merged in 1881 to form the Vassar Brothers Institute, and the following year the brewery heirs built a handsome structure on Vassar Street to house these free programs for the edification of the public. Known today as the Cunneen-Hackett Arts Center, the building housed an active museum, a library, an arts studio and an auditorium seating 215 people.
The Vassar Brothers Institute has continued to offer lectures every year since 1882, often featuring Vassar College professors and other well-known public figures. The original building was sold in 1977, but the Institute still organizes an annual series of Travel and Adventure Films, screened at Poughkeepsie High School since 1946. And the Science in Your Life lecture series, started in 1983, is hosted nowadays at the Our Lady of Lourdes High School auditorium. The 2014 edition of that series gets underway this week, and you’re invited.
The first of three Science in Your Life programs kicks off at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, January 29 with a performance by Arlington High School’s award-winning student band known as the Jazz Machine, conducted by Rich Guillen. But that’s more than just a musical interlude to get you in the mood to hear about a science topic; the lecturer to follow at 8:15 p.m., Scott Hull, owner of the New York City recording facility Masterdisk, also happens to be an alumnus of Arlington High, having played trombone in the jazz ensemble under the leadership of Bill Sweeney. An accomplished audio engineer, Hull has worked with such modern music legends as Bruce Springsteen, John Zorn, Bob Dylan and Sting.
Hull’s talk, titled “Music’s Technological Renaissance,” will look at the digital file-sharing revolution within a larger historical context and address such questions as, “Is technology the scourge of the music business or its savior? What is the overall effect of the democratization of creative empowerment and the sharing economy? What does the future hold for a society that refuses to pay for the ever-increasing quality and quantity it demands?”
Admission to this and other Science in Your Life lectures is free, but seating is limited and available on a first-come, first-served basis. The series continues on Wednesday, February 5 with “Lyme Disease: Science Bridges the Great Divide,” featuring Brian Fallon, MD from the Lyme & Tick-Borne Diseases Research Center at Columbia University Medical Center. On Wednesday, February 12, a performance by the Vivace Orchestra conducted by Jonathan Handman will be followed by a talk on “The Search for Life in the Solar System,” presented by Dr. James L Green of NASA’s Planetary Science Division in Washington, DC.
All programs in the series run from 7:30 p.m. to 9:15 p.m. For more information, you can download a brochure at https://vbi1882.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/science-in-your-life-2014.pdf.
Vassar Brothers Institute Science in Your Life lecture series, Wednesdays, January 29, February 5 & 12, 7:30 p.m., free, Our Lady of Lourdes High School, 131 Boardman Road, Poughkeepsie; www.vassarbrothersinstitute.org.