Rachael Robinson Elmer had many gifts. She was musical, artistic, a good writer, and a talented speaker. When she was a teenager, her father told her to concentrate on one thing. She chose art and filled her life with its beauty and way of communicating her caring for others and the world around her.
Rachael was born on a Ferrisburgh, Vermont farm on July 28, 1878. Her father Rowland was a farmer, conservationist, artist, and writer. Her mother Anna was an artist and teacher. Rachael grew up in a Quaker home where there were books, music, interesting people and stories of the Underground Railroad, and folktales of the area, farming, fishing, and hunting. She looked out her window and saw Lake Champlain, the Adirondack Mountains, the fields dotted with sheep and cows, and the colors of the forests. She and her father took many walks in the countryside in place of her”female” chores in the house.
She was the first child of older parents though sister Mary and brother Rowland would come later. From the time she was little she drew the flora and fauna around her, filling the pages of sketchbooks her mother bought her or her father made for her. Like her father had when he was small, she also covered the margins and covers of books, the backs of letters and farm receipts, cereal boxes, and a wall or two with her detailed pictures of what she saw. Her classmates loved her sketches and paintings as well as her cheerful and kind manner. “She brought joy to every occasion,” one of them shared. Every week she and her mother took the train into Burlington for art classes. At 12, she was enrolled in a correspondence course in art from the Chautauqua Society, where the director recognized her as one of the most talented students he’d ever had.
At 14, she was invited to New York City to take classes with live models. Can you imagine a young teenager from the Vermont hills encountering a crowded urban center? In fact, she loved it! Each time she came back for her classes with Max Ernst, she discovered new favorite spots to visit and paint. Armed with more education at Goddard Academy in Barre, Vermont, two years of teaching in Burlington and Ferrisburgh, and tutoring from Anna in color, composition, and perspective, she returned to New York. She studied under Impressionist painter Hassam Childe and got work illustrating for several children’s book publishers.
When a Quaker friend sent her a postcard from London, not a black and white photographic-like one, but a lovely fine art painting, she was almost moved to tears. When her friend encouraged her with the words, “Our city is surely as lovely and thee could serve her well,” Rachael knew she had been called to a new task. She roamed the city, painting her favorite spots and then spent two years and at least three pairs of shoes looking for a publisher to create postcards from her paintings. Finally, P.F. Volland in Chicago agreed, the postcards were published in 1914, and the postcard industry was changed forever. The fine art paintings sold for 25 cents at the best boutiques and were an immediate success.
She continued her illustrating and was praised by her employers for her detail, color, and liveliness of her characters. She was never without work. When she married Robert France Elmer, a widowed banker, she found new love and support. Her husband often took over the cooking and housework to give Rachael time and space for her artistic endeavors. Together, they entertained and shared their home with others. During World War I, they often invited young soldiers to their home, feeding them, caring for the sick, and boosting morale. Rachael understood how scared and homesick these young men from farms and cities were as they waited to ship overseas or came back from the war, injured and weighed down with the memories of the violence. She did not agree with war as the answer but was called to fill their lives with beauty, joy, and hope. She’d never done much cartooning as had her father, but she filled the walls of the soldiers’ canteens with posters and murals to make them laugh and give them memories of home.
On February 13, 1919, Rachael Robinson Elmer died of influenza, probably infected by one of those young soldiers. She was mourned by her family and friends and remembered by villagers in France who had been able to plant trees destroyed in the war with funds Rachael had raised. She was also remembered fondly by former students and classmates for her charm, inner and outer beauty, generous nature, and sense of fun.
Her home, the Rokeby Farm, was turned into a museum in 1961, when the last Robinson family member died and left the property for that purpose. Today, from May to October, the museum and the old farm house are open to visitors. Recently, the museum turned over 15,000 family letters to the library at Middlebury College. These letters contain vivid pictures of life on the farm in Ferrisburgh, adventures in the cities where family members worked, studied, and traveled, concerns for the health and behavior of relatives, and social justice activities of generations of Robinsons.
Questions to consider:
- Why do you think Quakers include stewardship of one’s gifts as an important part of the testimony of integrity?
- How can adults help children recognize their gifts and find good ways to share them with others?
- Rachael was good at many things. Why did her father suggest she choose one and focus on it?
- Rachael’s mother suggested she “follow her bliss.” Is that the same kind of choice her father suggested? How or how note?
- Rokeby Museum, 4334 Route 7, Ferrisburgh, VT 05456, 802/877-3406, firstname.lastname@example.org – exhibits, visits, programs, and educational kits
- National Gallery of Art Print Room, Washington, DC – prints of all 12 postcards are available to view by appointment
- “Wish You Were Here” – New York City postcards by Rachael Robinson Elmer, https:www.youtube.com/watch?v+gi4_Wylfvyo
- Women’s History presentation – https://www.vpr.org/post/williamson-womens-history-month-rachael-robinson-elmer