Sarah Tyson Rorer, the pioneering dietician who moved to Colebrook

6 min read397 views and 129 shares Posted September 26, 2019

One of the country’s first culinary celebrities settled down in the Colebrook area in her later years, and continued to educate and influence the community around her. Her name was Sarah Tyson Rorer.

Sarah Tyson Heston was born in the town of Richboro in Bucks County in 1849. She married the bookkeeper William Albert Rorer in 1871, and together raised two sons and a daughter; the latter’s life was tragically cut short. Sarah and William separated in 1896, but Sarah kept the last name which was, by that time, strongly associated with her work. One of her sons, William Albert Rorer, managed a United States Weather Bureau substation in Mt. Gretna. (His brother, James Birch Rorer, was a “micrologist in his majesty’s [George V] service for the islands of Trinidad and Tobago,” according to a 1918 biography.)

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An illustration in the Pittsburgh Daily Post, 1909.

Her long career began as a student-turned-teacher of the New Century Club in Philadelphia. She had taken classes at the Philadelphia Women’s Medical College, hoping at that time to become a pharmacist, but was called upon to step up as the teacher of the Club following the departure of the original instructor. Shortly afterward in 1883, she opened up the Philadelphia Cooking School, one of the first of its kind in the area, and began work on the first of her many seminal Rorer cookbooks.

Rorer got her start as a teacher at the New Century Club, located at 124 South 12th Street in Philadelphia. (Free Library Collection)

Her career was in full swing, and in the ensuing decades Rorer capitalized on her nationwide recognition to appear at expositions and fairs, visit foreign countries, open a New York restaurant, and endorse then-new products like Pyrex, coffee brands, and stoves.

Rorer’s tart remarks and saucy personality lent additional flavor to her rising star. She was known for her strong thoughts on food, with some dishes praised extensively (salad, according to Rorer, should be eaten every day of the year) and others derided as being “[not] fit to eat,” in the case of ham, or even “deadly,” a designation she applied to all manners of fried foods, desserts, and even simple white bread. Her personality and presentation style attracted many thousands of attendees to her lectures and demonstrations over the years.

The special factor that Rorer built her legacy with was her knowledge of chemistry and digestive science, partially inherited from her chemist father Charles, and further expanded through her own personal studies. Her lectures were more than recipe or technique demonstrations–they included the burgeoning science of the “dietetics” field, and allowed audiences to apply their knowledge in adapting to a variety of nutritional and dietary needs within their own lives.

In recognition of Rorer’s many credentials (too numerous to list here), below are some particularly notable ones:

  • Instructor at the School of Cooking in Mt. Gretna
  • Editor of Ladies’ Home Journal, Table Talk, and Household News, among other newspaper columns
  • Honorary member of the Lebanon Quota Club
  • Member of the Author’s League of America
  • Opened the Philadelphia Exchange of Women’s Work
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Rorer’s fame and influence had a lasting effect on early 20th-century culture, and she became a household name across the nation. She was even referenced on Broadway — one ditty in the 1924 musical Sitting Pretty describes “Mr. and Mrs. Rorer” — the latter of whom manages to keep her husband in good spirits thanks to her cooking prowess. Hear the song via YouTube.

“Mr. and Mrs. Rorer” was a song penned for the 1924 musical Sitting Pretty, with music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by P.G. Wodehouse.

Coming to the county

Rorer first came to Colebrook at the start of her marriage, and later visited the Mt. Gretna region in 1889, and in subsequent years took part in the burgeoning Pennsylvania Chautauqua movement, officially founded in 1892. Her classes taught in the community revolved around not only recipes and cooking skills but also about the chemistry of the food itself and the principles of the digestive system, which was at the time a process not often considered when cooking. After renting a cottage in Mt. Gretna, she built one of her own (dubbed “Dragonfly”) in 1898. By 1912, she was a permanent resident of Mt. Gretna, and by the end of the decade she would be living in Colebrook, north of the town. Her Colebrook residence would later become the Colebrook Post Office.

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Sarah Tyson Rorer Hall, a small but “roomy” frame structure building, was opened in 1897. Culinary classes for the Chautauqua were held inside, with Rorer acting as a commanding presence within the local sphere. The building would only stay up for a little over a decade, before being torn down in 1908 to make space for the construction of the Hall of Philosophy, which still stands at 212 Gettysburg Avenue.

A postcard of the Hall of Philosophy, on the former site of Rorer Hall. (Mt. Gretna Area Historical Society)

Although she herself owned a cottage of her own design at Mt. Gretna, she is quoted as remarking haughtily on the surrounding homes: “I do hope the time will come when architects will wake up and get some new ideas. These cottages are simply monstrosities.”

A peeved neighbor quipped back: “Yet, Mrs. Rorer’s cottage is absolutely the ugliest on the grounds.”

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Politicking or potlucking?

Rorer’s culinary skills and educational efforts stand out as her primary legacy, but comparatively little has been written about her political activities, which began later in life. She began her involvement in the Lebanon County Democratic Club as she settled in the area, and continued to use her skills as a presenter and educator to further political causes in the area and state.

During World War I, Rorer toured parts the American interior with US Senator Frank Willis of Ohio. To Rorer, wastefulness was a grave sin, and she spent her tour speaking to families and housewives on the importance of food conservation, a practice meant to bolster the US Army and effectively manage food resources at home.

When New York Governor Alfred Smith, a Democrat running against Herbert Hoover, began his presidential campaign in 1928 after a nomination by Franklin D. Roosevelt, Rorer traveled the state in support of him. Back in Lebanon, she helped create the Women’s Auxiliary of the Alfred E. Smith Club. Smith lost to Hoover, and soon the country would sink into the Great Depression.

A portrait of New York Governor and onetime presidential candidate Alfred E. Smith. Rorer did much work to support his campaign, but ultimately the Republican candidate, Herbert Hoover, would win out. (Hall of Governors, New York)

On July 11th, 1933, Rorer was made first President of the Lebanon County League of Democratic Women, a part of the Democratic Club. Her skills honed after a long career again served her well in this position, and she spoke on a variety of topics for female voters of the local Democratic Party. The 19th Amendment, which guaranteed women’s suffrage, had only been ratified a little over a decade earlier in 1920 when the League and Rorer began their mission in the county.

The many topics on which Rorer, now 84 years old, spoke as League President included the causes of the Great Depression (then termed the “National Crisis”), rampant materialism, uncontrolled mass production, the National Rifle Association, World War I, the political delineation of the two major parties, major historical events, the electoral college, key presidents, and a number of other matters she felt were important for Democratic Lebanon women. President Franklin D. Roosevelt directly communicated with Rorer on at least one occasion on things “political and economical,” and she claimed to have known his distant cousin and former President Theodore Roosevelt personally.

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Rorer passed away in the winter of 1937 at the age of 88, largely destitute from the effects of the Great Depression, a national crisis that she had tried her best to remedy with waning influence. She was buried in the graveyard of the Trinity Lutheran Church of Colebrook. Her legacy, both as a pioneering dietician and domestic scientist, as well as a local political leader, is massively impressive given its length and substance, and she can still be counted among Lebanon County’s finest residents.

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An index of Rorer’s many recipe and domestic science books may be found at this link, listed by the University of Pennsylvania. Some of her most influential books are Mrs. Rorer’s Cook Book, Mrs. Rorer’s New Cook Book: A Manual of Housekeeping and Mrs. Rorer’s Every Day Menu Book.

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